Social media is an important way for brands and consumers to interact, particularly among young people. A new survey reveals that 70% of teens engaged with food and drink brands on social media in 2017. But the majority of these interactions – a massive 93% - were with unhealthy products.
Published in journal Appetite, researchers from the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity looked at how teens interacted with brands on platforms including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat.
The study found teens were 'overwhelmingly' engaging with fast food, unhealthy snacks, candy and sugary drink brands.
Brands that dominated teens' social media engagement included Doritos, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Hershey, Snickers and McDonald's. More than one-third of teens who said they liked, shared, or followed fast food, sugary drink, candy, or snack brands engaged with these specific brands.
Teens are marketing brands within their social networks
Almost 40% of teens reported spending four or more hours each day on (non-TV) screens.
Study authors say the findings reflect how food and beverage companies use social media to reach teens. Significantly, they noted, it encourages teens to essentially market these products to friends in their social networks.
"This study shows how successful companies are at using social media to reach teens and take advantage of teens' peer networks,” Dr Fran Fleming-Milici, lead study author and assistant research professor for the Rudd Center, said.
“Companies usually pay big bucks to market their brands, but with social media they are getting teens to do it for free. And, since teens' choices are heavily influenced by their peers, the payoff is huge."
This could ‘undermine’ efforts to create a healthy food environment at home because ‘kids are bombarded by unhealthy food marketing on their phones and computer screens’, Dr Fleming-Milici added
The study, which focused on US teenagers, also found that brand engagement was highest among black teens, Spanish-speaking Hispanic teens, and teens whose parents have lower education levels. This raises public health concerns linked to higher rates of diet-related non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, in these population groups.
"It's probably not a coincidence that the brands that teens engage with the most on social media are the same ones that spend the most to target them with advertising messages designed to make their products seem fun, cool, and daring," said Dr Jennifer Harris, study author and director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center.
"Unfortunately, those products also have high amounts of added sugars, fat, and calories that can lead to negative health consequences for a lifetime."
Researchers recommend that food and beverage manufacturers stop targeting teens with marketing for products that can harm their health. Study authors also backed the introduction of excise taxes on sugary drinks to increase the cost of unhealthy beverages to help reduce teens' consumption.
Companies must also stop disproportionately targeting marketing of their least healthy products to teens in communities of colour, they concluded.
'Adolescents' engagement with unhealthy food and beverage brands on social media'
DOI: DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2019.104501
Authors: Frances Fleming-Milici et al