Kid influencers have free reign on social media

December 7, 2020
Rachael Zimlich, RN, BSN

Rachael Zimlich is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio. She writes regularly for Contemporary Pediatrics, Managed Healthcare Executive, and Medical Economics.

Kid influencers are having a field day on social media when it comes to pushing (mostly unhealthy) products on unsuspecting viewers. Here’s how you can help.

Product placement in children’s television has been regulated for some time in an attempt to shield children from masked efforts to influence their choices. Social media has proven to be a bit of like the Wild West when it comes to marketing to children, however, especially when it comes to using other children to market to this vulnerable group.

A new series in Pediatrics examines the role of kid influencers in social media marketing through a study and commentary.1,2 In the commentary, Yolanda N Evans, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital, and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media, offers perspective on the scope of the problem kid influencers have created, and what clinicians can do to help.

“As pediatricians, we should ask about social media usage and viewing starting at young ages,” Evans says. “When we have conversations with parents and children, we should use the opportunity to help teach them to be informed consumers of media and learn to recognize advertising and messaging—even when subtle.”

Subtle is the key when it comes to social media marketing. It’s so effective as a tool because it can be difficult to recognize—even for parents.

“Parents should be aware of what children are viewing online,” Evans says. “They can also learn about how advertising online can be subtle and might not be recognized. For example, if a favorite social media influencer is shown eating a food with the logo visible, that could be a paid advertisement and not just the influencer eating a random meal.”

Food and beverage companies spend almost $2 billion per year on marketing efforts targeted to children, and internet-based marketing has drastically increased over the years and regulations on product placement on children’s television programs have become more strict.

Food advertising is believed to be a major contributor to children’s diet choices, and exposure to video streaming content on mobile devices has become a huge issue. Unlike television, one tool that social media has used is influencers, or online celebrities with large fan bases that are paid to endorse certain products in their videos. These “everyday people” are perceived by viewers as more relatable and trustworthy than when mainstream celebrities endorse products, the report notes. For these reasons, the prevalence of kid influencers is on the rise. In 2018 and 2019, an 8-year-old was the highest paid YouTube influencer, earning $26 million from advertisements on video posts.

These types of advertisements shape product preference in several ways, according to the report. One is through “pester power,” where children ask for certain brands or products. “Pester power” is believed to generate $190 billion in sales each year, the study reveals. Additionally, children aren’t easily able to distinguish advertising from content, and the way social media intersperses the 2 exacerbates the effect of these ads. Finally, although parents may be hesitant to allow free viewing of social media, they can be influenced by the popularity and “likes” of some content, and develop their own feelings of trust with the “every day” nature of influencers.

There has been little research on the effect of social media influencers and food purchases. This study sought to examine the frequency of product placement in top social media videos, and the nutritional quality of those items.

“Pediatricians can take many steps. Most are already aligned with the anticipatory guidance we offer routinely,” she says.

The Pediatrics study investigated how often kid influencers promote different food and drink brands, and how healthy these brands are. Researchers used social media tracking tools to find the top 5 kid influencers on YouTube for 2019, and then reviewed the 50 most-watched posts by those personalities. What brands were featured, how long and often they were featured, and the nutritional quality of the featured products were all assessed in the study.

Kid influencers generated 48.2 billion views and 38.6 million subscribers across more than 10,000 videos posted to YouTube, according to the study. Each video featured a family with two or three children engaging in fun family activities. Almost half of the videos featured certain foods or drinks that appeared a total of 291 times in 179 videos. These 179 videos generated more than one billion views and almost 3 million likes on YouTube, the report notes. Most of the items featured in these videos were unhealthy, such as fast food or candies, the research team adds. This resulted in millions of children influenced by these social media posts, creating unhealthy impressions for viewers through product placement. Product placement has been regulated in children’s television program since the 1990s, but this report shows that maybe the time has come to extend that regulation to internet content.

The study concludes that kid influencers essentially provide marketers with targeted access to both parents and children. As this marketing channel grows, there is a huge potential to increase children’s exposure to unhealthy products, the study suggests. Even if disclosures are required about product placement, children are unlikely to recognize these in the posts. Enforcement of current regulations aimed at protecting kids from this type of marketing aren’t consistently enforced online. The research team suggests that parents work harder to limit screen time—especially on social media channels—and push for better regulation on product placement and marketing disguised as entertainment on social media.

In her commentary on social media marketing to children that was also published in Pediatrics, Evans says health care providers have to step up when it comes to warning parents about the allure of marketing to children on social media and advocate for more regulation. Pediatricians can also use their position as experts to generate their own content promoting healthier practices to counter this kind of marketing, she suggests.

Evans says pediatricians should help make parents aware of how important they are in their child’s behavior. Some specific advice she offers for guidance includes:

  • Encouraging parents to view media content with their children.
  • Having conversations about what children are seeing online. “Ask yourself and your children open questions about the media influencers and their behavior such as ‘why did they choose that product, brand, or logo? Why do you think they were eating that brand of food instead of something else?’” Evans suggests.
  • If a product or brand is recommended online or if a product or brand shows up in your media feed, ask why you think that is.
  • Discuss changes to behavior or choices that have occurred from viewing content online. Are those changes helpful for the health of the family?

Parents and pediatricians can also help advocate for stronger regulations on marketing to children on social media, similar to what was done with children’s television.

“My hope is that pediatricians will continue to help parents advocate for their children,” Evans says. “We have an opportunity to enlighten parents and teach them to be savvy consumers of social media: aware of advertising, algorithms that filter content in an effort to keep us online to view ads, and aware of parents have power to push for stronger regulations and guidelines to prevent marketing of products to very young children.”

Reference

1. Alruwaily A, Mangold C, Greene T, et al. Child social media influencers and unhealthy food product placement. Pediatrics. 2020;146(5):e20194057. doi:10.1542/peds.2019-4057

2. Evans Y. One-sided social media relationships and the impact of advertising on children. Pediatrics. 2020;146(5):e2020017533. doi:10.1542/peds.2020-017533