Is your kid suddenly clamoring for a fast food meal or a sugary cereal you've never even heard of? He or she may have seen the product featured on a favorite "kid influencer" video.
In a new study, researchers viewed the top 50 kid influencer videos on YouTube and found that 9 out of 10 featured unhealthy foods. Nearly 1 in 3 promoted a fast-food chain.
But, what in the world is a kid influencer?
If you have children, odds are you know at least one -- or your kids do. Kid influencers are young online celebrities with large social media fan bases. They can earn big profits from ads and endorsements in their videos.
The five most-watched influencers in this study have generated more than 48 billion views and 38.6 million subscribers through more than 10,000 YouTube videos posted through July 2019. Their average age? Just 7 years old.
The most watched of these influencers is 9-year-old Ryan Kaji, whose video channel, "Ryan's World," has nearly 27 million subscribers. Published reports pegged his 2019 income at $26 million. His family started making videos of his reactions to unboxing new toys when he was just 3.
"I think parents probably underestimate the effect of these videos for a few reasons: One is that kid influencers seem like everyday kids. They're familiar and fun, but they have some star power. Another is that these videos have a lot of views. And, kids are really vulnerable to the persuasive effects of advertising, especially kids under 8," said study senior author Marie Bragg. She's an assistant professor of public health nutrition at the New York University College of Global Public Health in New York City.
In fact, Bragg added that "pester power" (kids repeatedly asking for something) generates about $190 billion a year. "Companies know that kids can wield influence over their parents," she said.
Studies have shown that poor diets in childhood increase the odds for obesity and other health conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease later in life. Exposure to food advertising is an environmental factor thought to affect a child's diet.
Researchers noted that food and beverage companies spend about $1.8 billion a year on youth-targeted marketing. Television has been a major source of food advertising, but with consumers spending more time online, companies have been increasingly advertising on the internet, according to background information in the study.
For the study, researchers watched the top five influencers' 50 most-viewed videos, and a sample of 50 videos that included foods or beverages. Videos featuring food or drink had 1 billion views.
Nearly 43% of the videos featured food or beverages. Just 3% included healthy foods, such as fruits or vegetables, while 90% featured foods considered unhealthy. More than 90% also featured branded food or beverage products. About half of these videos showed the influencer consuming the food or drink.
"I hope that parents become more aware of the stealth nature of these ads that kids are promoting," Bragg said. "Even if parents are aware of the product placements, it's still hard to change a child's behavior."
She urged parents to let companies know that you don't like seeing their ads on kids' videos.
"My concern is that these ads may be like TV commercials on steroids," Bragg said. "Kids watch on autoplay, which means they'll see the same type of programming over and over again. Instead of 10 minutes of ads throughout a 30-minute TV show, they can end up seeing the same product over and over again. Plus, TV commercials are only 30 or 60 seconds at a time."
It wasn't clear from this study whether all of the foods and beverages promoted were paid advertising, or if they simply reflected the child's personal preferences.
The findings were published Oct. 26 in the journal Pediatrics.
Dr. Yolanda Evans of Seattle Children's Hospital wrote an editorial that accompanied the study. She shared Bragg's concern about the amount of time children are exposed to food and beverage promotion in kid influencer videos compared to typical advertising.
"The landscape for advertising has changed so much," Evans said. "It's challenging for everyone to realize what's happening when you're viewing online. You may think if your child is watching YouTube Kids that it's OK, but that programming isn't completely benign. The advertising is subtle."
Plus, kids tend to watch videos again and again, reinforcing any messaging they contain, she said.
"Consumers can speak up and hold corporations accountable," Evans said.
She also suggested parents talk to their kids about what they see online. "If your child asks you for a specific toy, ask why they're interested in it: Is it because of an ad, or because they saw it in a video? Help kids be smart consumers of media," Evans said.
Both experts suggested that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission should increase regulations around products promoted in kid influencer videos.
Commonsense Media offers a parent's guide to YouTube.