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The spread of influencer marketing has reached the children. On YouTube, dedicated channels feature cute kids engaging with various products. Often they unbox and play with toys, detailing the fun of goofing around with the latest gadgets and collectibles. But in addition to marketing toys and games, many of these “kidfluencers” feature food-related product placements in their videos, an advertising tactic with potentially risky implications for their equally young audiences.

According to recent academic research, which surveyed 418 popular YouTube videos featuring young influencers, 271 of them included some branded food or beverages, the vast majority of which were unhealthy.

Ryan’s World is one such popular kidfluencer. The channel attracts around 27 million subscribers who watch 9-year-old Ryan Kaji play and goof around on camera. In one video, he role plays as a McDonald’s cashier, decked out in a branded shirt and hat. He pretends to sell plastic McNuggets and fries to other toys, then eats an actual Happy Meal on camera. In addition to McDonald’s products, Ryan’s World has featured food and drinks from Hardee’s and Chuck E. Cheese, along with products made by Hasbro and sold by Walmart. Through these various endorsements, the channel earned $26 million in 2019.

Although marketing any products to children can be ethically problematic—and is restricted by various laws and regulations—experts assert that marketing unhealthy foods is a particular concern. Some of the most commonly promoted brands are known for their sugary and fatty foods, less than ideal for healthy eating, such as Oreo, Dairy Queen, and Skittles. One estimate suggests that videos featuring these junk foods have been seen by at least a billion young consumers.

That spread of influence raises serious concerns about the risk of childhood obesity, which has achieved terrifying rates. Approximately 20 percent of U.S. children are obese; only 5.5 percent were in the 1970s. And consistent evidence affirms that exposure to advertising for junk food is closely related to obesity. Add to these concerns the increasing screen time consumed by young consumers, and we have a potential recipe for a health disaster. A recent survey indicated that nearly all parents allow their children to watch YouTube, and 35 percent of them said their kids did so frequently.

Thus, we have a popular channel, featuring increasingly influential kid marketers, promoting products in subtle ways, including products that are clearly detrimental to the health of the billions of young viewers whose cognitive abilities have not developed enough for them to understand fully or resist the effects of marketing. The kidfluencers might look adorable, but they might be a grave danger, with cute dimples.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What regulations should be imposed on kidfluencers to address these concerns?
  2. Ultimately, is there an ethical way for YouTube videos, targeted at children, to promote products?

Source: Anahad O’Connor, “Are ‘Kidfluencers’ Making our Kids Fat?” The New York Times, October 30, 2020; Amaal Alruwaily, Chelsea Mangold, Tenay Greene, Josh Arshonsky, Omni Cassidy, Jennifer L. Pomeranz, and Marie Bragg, “Child Social Media Influencers and Unhealthy Food Product Placement, Pediatrics 146, no. 5 (November 2020), doi: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2019-4057