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Junk food abounds on YouTube videos for kids

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are lots of kid YouTubers. Some have tens of millions of subscribers and billions of video downloads. Well, a new study finds that these videos frequently showcase junk food, which raises concerns that these child influencers are actually influencing kids' food choices. NPR's Maria Godoy has more.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: This is a YouTube video made by kids, for kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Awesome.

GODOY: The video features two pint-sized child influencers running around in search of soda.

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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Inaudible). OK.

GODOY: This particular channel has 16 million subscribers. That's peanuts. Some kid YouTubers have more than a hundred million subscribers, and they're extremely popular with young kids.

FRAN FLEMING: Kids as young as age 3 are spending time on YouTube.

GODOY: Fran Fleming is with Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health at the University of Connecticut. She and her colleagues wanted to know what kind of food and drink brands kids see when they watch these videos, so they analyzed hundreds of videos produced by some of the top kid influencers on YouTube. Turns out, food was often a co-star.

FLEMING: Four out of every of the 10 videos that we viewed had food or beverage branded products, and most common were candy, sweet and salty snacks, sugary drinks and ice cream and branded toppings.

GODOY: About a third of the time, the kids were shown eating the junk foods, and Fleming says that's a problem. Prior research has found that when young kids are exposed to food marketing, especially when they see someone they admire eating a product, it can strongly impact what they want to eat too and what they ask their parents to buy.

FLEMING: Which is something that's called pester power. And most parents or anyone who's spent any time with the child knows the pester power.

GODOY: Now, YouTube actually banned all food advertising on channels with content made for kids back in 2020. But Fleming says her team's findings show that hasn't stopped unhealthy foods from showing up - a lot. The study didn't look at whether child influencers are actually being paid to feature those foods. And only one video out of hundreds acknowledged sponsorship. By law, such relationships must be disclosed.

FLEMING: Perhaps these are unpaid, but it doesn't mean that the effect is different.

GODOY: Other research has found that YouTube videos often create an environment where kids can watch other kids live out their wishes. Dr. Jenny Radesky is with the University of Michigan. She's a leading researcher on kids and digital media.

JENNY RADESKY: Content creators are kind of packing their videos with these highly desirable, highly pleasurable items, you know, huge pieces of candy and cake and M&Ms all over the place because they know that that gets more engagement from child viewers.

GODOY: A YouTube spokesperson told NPR that they have measures in place that make it harder for creators of kid content to profit from videos that focus on food brands. Jenny Radesky says those measures are good, but her research has not found dramatic signs of improvement. Maria Godoy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.