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If you have children or teens living in your household, you are likely very familiar with video-sharing sites like YouTube. Home viewing entertainment has moved way beyond cable television and movies to these user-generated video library sites with a seemingly endless supply of content. These social media sites pose various concerns for parents, caregivers and educators. Now pediatricians and other health practitioners are sounding the alarm on the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to young viewers on these platforms.

This is not the first time that the marketing of junk food to kids has come up as a hot topic. Television advertisements geared towards children for sugary cereals, sugar-sweetened beverages and fast food, for example, have been debated for decades. We know from the research that the marketing of high-calorie, low-nutrient products to children increases children’s preference and intake of these foods and drinks. Furthermore, unhealthy food and beverage commercials targeting children and teens contribute to poor quality diet and increased preventable illness in young people in the United States and worldwide. While some countries tightly control or ban unhealthy food ads targeting kids and teens, the U.S. is not one of them.

This growing shift towards watching videos on sites like YouTube has created a new cause for concern about junk food marketing. A study published last month in the scholarly journal Pediatrics analyzed content published last year by the top five YouTube influencers who are all under the age of 15 years. Keep in mind that popular YouTube influencers are social media personalities who garner millions of page views with celebrity-like status among their audience. Many social media influencers generate income by placing and promoting consumer products in their videos. Of the hundreds of videos analyzed in this new study, over 40 percent featured food or drinks and 90 percent of those were unhealthy products.

Adults should not underestimate the influence of YouTube viewing on young people. Common Sense Media, an independent, nonprofit organization that rates and recommends entertainment sources for families and schools, says that YouTube is appropriate for ages 13+. Unlike television commercials played during program breaks, advertising on social media is often incorporated into the narrative of the video with the influencers adding credibility and persuasion.

With parents and children working and learning from home, usage of internet-connected devices is at a high. Here are five strategies to help protect your children from unwanted unhealthy food marketing on these platforms:

  1. The best way to understand if your child is viewing food product marketing on social media is to watch with them. Ask them to show you their favorite shows on YouTube or other platforms they enjoy. Use this as an opportunity to talk about responsible social media use together.
  2. Steer away from allowing children to watch “unboxing videos,” which show influencers opening products while talking. These videos are often not just product reviews, but more like paid advertisements.
  3. Know that unhealthy food and drinks often have an exponentially larger advertising budget than healthful foods like fruit and vegetables. Consistently offering a variety of healthy foods at home helps set the stage for a lifetime of good eating habits.
  4. Visit Commonsensemedia.org for useful information about media for families including Parents’ Ultimate Guides to various popular web-based apps for families.
  5. Take steps to place time limits and other controls over kids’ video viewing. Keep video viewing to a set amount of time per day or week. While YouTube has a Restricted Mode and other settings that help with managing “digital well-being,” these do not directly reduce exposure to unwanted marketing.

Since online marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children is highly unregulated, this is more of an ethical, public health concern rather than a legal one at this time. However, as more research is published on this issue and complaints are vocalized, the concerns over online food marketing to kids and teens will likely become more pervasive, potentially leading to policy decisions. Arm yourself with the right information now to best protect your children and students from unwanted unhealthy food marketing.

LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD is a registered dietitian, providing nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and organizations. She can be reached by email at RD@halfacup.com.

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By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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