Have you ever heard the term social media influencer? If not, it is a person who generates a large number of followers on social media and has an impact over that audience. Over the past several years, social media influencers have not just been adults, but also children and teenagers who have developed quite the following. Children see these influencers (who are not necessarily celebrities on mainstream media) as peers and even friends as they identify with the subject matter being discussed. For example, children referred to as “kid influencers” will frequently use their videos to try out a new toy on the market or engage in activities that children would themselves enjoy doing. Whether or not it is intentional, as children and teens relate to the influencer, fans of influencers may also relate to the products being used by these influencers. What foods and beverages are being used in these videos and do they promote healthy behaviors?
To look at the issue of health nutritional behaviors demonstrated by child influencers, Alruwaily et al (10.1542/peds.2019-4057) evaluated the most-watched videos from the five most-watched “kid influencers” ages 3-14 years in 2019. The authors identified 179 videos in which food and drink products were featured 291 times. The authors found that 90% of the food and drink products were unhealthy branded items followed by unhealthy unbranded items (4.1%) with healthy unbranded items (3.1%) and unhealthy branded items (2.4%) coming in last. What is even more concerning is that these videos were watched one billion times!
What can we as pediatricians do about so much exposure to unhealthy eating behaviors by child social media influencers? We asked adolescent specialist Dr. Yolanda Evans (10.1542/peds.2020-017533) from Seattle Children’s to weigh in with an accompanying commentary. She educates us about the dangers of social media influencers in regard to promoting less than healthy behaviors. Dr. Evans also discussed how the Federal Trade Commission has developed guidelines for when and how influencers should disclose brand relationships but notes how lax these guidelines are and how difficult it is to catch violations. She offers one statistic that is startling –the Super Bowl had 100 million viewers in 2020 while the kid influencers in this study by Alruwaily et al garnered 48 billion views.
Fortunately, the AAP has recently published their guidelines on Digital Advertising to Children (10.1542/peds.2020-1681) which offers several steps we can take as pediatricians to reduce the unhealthy health habits suggested intentionally or unintentionally by these kid influencers. For example, we can start with educating ourselves about influencers, and then teach parents and caregivers about digital literacy and how to recognize product placements and their impacts in these videos. We might also find a moment during an office visit to point out an ad a child may be looking at unintentionally on a screen device they are using while you are chatting with a parent about their child’s health. Digital social media influencers are well worth knowing about—and this study and commentary combined with the AAP’s new policy statement on this topic will enable you to better influence your patients and families about the potential risks of your patients being influenced in the wrong direction by child and adolescent digital influencers.