NEW DELHI: Children with popular YouTube channels are frequently featuring
that have millions of views, which is likely encouraging poor nutrition,
have warned. They have also raised alarm that the Covid-19 lockdown may be compounding the problem of children’s exposure to unhealthy food as the allure of online videos grows among young kids stuck at home.
TOI took a look at channels hosted by Indian child YouTube stars and found that junk food often featured in their uploads as part of “challenge” videos. ‘Pizza challenge’ featured on several channels — basically a task where kids put surprise ingredients on their pizza, ranging from potato chips to noodles to chocolates. The same challenge was also done with items like burgers and cupcakes.
Then there were games where food — often junk food — was the reward. For instance, a brother-sister channel with 9.7 million followers shows a video where three participants draw chits and are served food such as french fries, pizza and cake in small, medium and large portions accordingly. Another channel with 976k followers has two sisters playing games with food as reward. The lucky one gets to enjoy actual food while the other is handed a miniature clay version of the item. The 12-minute video shows the younger sibling eating potato chips, cake, burger, fries, pizza among other things.
In most such videos, parents accompanied children or are heard in the background filming them. Some channels do have videos presented as “moral stories” that talk about the ill-effects of eating unhealthy food. But these videos are significantly lower in number than the so-called challenge videos.
Santosh Upadhyay, whose daughters host the channel ‘Ayu and Anu-Twin Sisters’ which has 620k subscribers, told TOI that challenge videos are popular since they bring out the humour in odd combinations of food and weren’t meant to promote junk food. “Online content does influence viewers but treatment of the subject also matters. We don’t promote junk food and have never done any paid promotions for it,” he said.
Experts said the choice of food for such challenge videos can be tweaked to incorporate healthy items. “Peer influence can promote good behaviour but also negative behaviours. When a child sees another eating junk food online, they are more likely to demand it,” said Dr Shweta Sharma, consultant clinical psychologist at Asia Columbia Hospital (Gurugram).
Most videos by Indian YouTubers did contain unbranded food items, suggesting that they were not paid promotions by brands. But globally, the growing popularity of videos of “kid influencers”on YouTube has caught the attention of companies which are advertising or sponsoring posts to promote their products before or during videos, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics. The highest-paid YouTube influencer of the past two years was an 8-year-old who earned $26 million last year, it said.
In the study, Marie Bragg, assistant professor of public health nutrition at New York University School of Global Public Health and her colleagues identified the five most popular kid influencers on YouTube of 2019 — whose ages ranged from 3 to 14 years old — and analysed their most-watched videos.
Focusing on a sample of 418 YouTube videos, they recorded whether food or drinks were shown in the videos, what items and brands were shown, and assessed their nutritional quality. The researchers found that nearly half of the most-popular videos from kid influencers promoted food and drinks. More than 90% of the products shown were unhealthy branded food, drinks or fast food toys followed by candy and soda.
“Dozens of studies have documented that exposure to unhealthy food advertisements causes children to eat more than children who see non-food advertisements. Even though studies haven't examined what happens when kids see ‘challenge’ videos, it is entirely possible that these sorts of videos would function just like other unhealthy food advertisements,” she told TOI.
According to Bragg, educating kids and parents about the ill-effects of fast food doesn’t offset the risk of being affected by advertisements. What we need are policy changes, she said.
“Fast food companies spend billions of dollars on ads each year and the advertisements can affect our choices even when we are aware that we're being exposed to advertising. One of the best ways to reduce risk for poor diet is to improve the policy landscape. For example, studies have shown that taxing unhealthy products like sugary drinks leads to reductions in sugary drink purchases,” she said.