Study shows social media impacts children’s diets

Grace Sweeney


Social media is taking its toll on our mental health. That toll can come in the form of selfie dysmorphia, Instagram-fueled depression, or an increase in eating disorders. Study after study is discovering more ways social media can cause mental and physical harm. If you don’t believe us, even Oprah and Prince Harry are tackling these issues.

Kids social media

The latest discovery comes by way of a recent study published in “Pediatrics.” Social media (particularly channels like YouTube and Instagram) may have a negative impact on what kids choose to eat.

The findings revealed that social media influencers could inspire children to eat junk food like cookies and candy, but those powers did not extend to getting kids excited about eating more vegetables.

What was measured?

Anna Coates, a Ph.D. student at the School of Psychology at the University of Liverpool, was interviewed by NPR. She and her colleagues wanted to know how much children’s diets were influenced by the accounts they followed on social media.

The study involved 176 children between the ages of nine and 11. They were divided into three groups so researchers could see how social media influences junk food cravings.

The kids who saw the junk food versions of photos were more likely to snack on cookies and candy. Their peers who saw healthy food images were less likely. According to the researchers, the extra snacking meant that the students in the junk food group consumed, on average, up to 90 calories more than their peers.

Junk food

While that doesn’t sound like much, American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson Natalie Digate Muth says otherwise. She said that just an extra 70 or 80 calories a day can make a difference. She also said that a small increase can cause a healthy child to become overweight.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like that influence works the other way. Those kids who saw the healthy food-focused images did not eat any more carrots or grapes than the other groups.

Just the latest in fast-food marketing to youth

We’ve long known that junk food ads have influenced what kids want to eat. Think about the items that were in your lunchbox growing up. We remember the Dunkaroos, Capri Suns, Oreos, and Doritos. Carrots aren’t in our highlight reel.

It seems that social media is making things worse. The WHO reported that platforms use kids’ data to push out targeted ads. That’s just ads; influencers muddy the waters.

Influencers are so effective because they feel familiar to us.  Recommendations coming from these social media users feel authentic, like a recommendation coming from a friend.

Of course, parents should talk to their children about influencers and how advertising works. Kids (and all of us) are more susceptible to influencer ads and product placement more than traditional ads.

Is regulation a possibility?

There’s little in the way of regulation when it comes to how we handle ads promoting junk food. In general, the FTC does have social media regulations in place. They require that influencers disclose when a post is sponsored.

However, it’s not exactly realistic for the organization to monitor every incoming post for potentially harmful content. There are millions of influencers all posting regularly.

Influencers complicate junk food marketing

Ronald McDonald

The study recommends tighter restrictions on marketing junk food. The digital marketing landscape is much more complicated than it was in the days where TV was the main concern.

Sure, we don’t have tobacco-sponsored cartoon characters targeting today’s youth, but advertising has changed a ton. Seriously though, that happened:

Influencer culture has made it cool to participate in advertising. So, chances are, popular influencers have tremendous power over the kids that follow them.

In this day and age, where teens are creating fake sponsored content for real brands, what is the widespread impact of online advertising on children?

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