COMMENT:

Childhood obesity in New Zealand is increasing rapidly, with the New Zealand Health Survey finding that our childhood obesity rates increased from 8 per cent in 2007 to 12 per cent in 2018.

Research has found strong associations between increases in advertising for non-nutritious foods and rates of childhood obesity, and a new study published in the journal Pediatrics has specifically highlighted the power of social media influencers to impact obesity levels.

Studies have shown that children under the age of 6 can not distinguish between television programmes and advertising, while children under the age of 8 do not understand the persuasive intent of advertising.

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Children's power to recall content and jingles from adverts is very strong and only a single exposure to one commercial is enough for a child to show product preference in requests to parents for purchasing decisions.

In 2017, one study looked at the amount of junk food advertising that New Zealand children are exposed to by attaching wearable camera and GPS units to them to monitor how often and where the children were seeing marketing for junk food. They found that on average the children were exposed to 27 advertisements per day for unhealthy foods including fizzy drinks, candy and snack foods. Surprisingly, seven of these adverts were found in schools

While commercials during children's television viewing times have been studied before, today's child-media consumption is increasingly online. A new form of celebrity – the social media influencer - is storming the internet.

These influencers prolifically post photographs and videos of themselves throughout the day, and share their lives online with their millions of followers. Children are among those who follow these influencers on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, and new research has directly explored the power of these influencers to change children's behaviour.

To see if product placement through these channels had any effect on the behaviour of children, researchers showed 176 children aged between 9 and 11 vlogs (video blogs) of Instagram influencers holding different items.

One set of children were shown images of the influencer holding non-food products such as smartphones and shoes, one set was shown images of the influencer with healthy snacks such as fruit and carrots and the third set was shown influencers with unhealthy snacks such as chocolate and cookies.

Within 10 minutes of viewing the influencer images, the children were asked to choose a snack to eat with a choice between healthy snacks including carrot sticks and grapes or unhealthy snacks such as candy and chocolate.

The researchers found that viewing pictures of influencers with unhealthy snacks resulted in children who consumed 32 per cent more calories from unhealthy snacks compared with children who saw the non-food products and the healthy snack images.

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The opposite was not true, with pictures of influencers holding healthy snacks having no increase on the amount of healthy snacks eater. The study shows the potential for influencers within social media to further increase the obesity rates for children through junk food product placement.

Some countries such as Sweden and Norway completely ban marketing of junk food to children aged 12 and under. In contrast, in the US there are few legal restrictions on what advertisers can broadcast to them.

New Zealand sits somewhere in the middle, with the self-regulated advertising standards agency having a policy that food advertisements to children should not undermine the health and wellbeing of children. Social medial influencers however, are not bound within these rules and can post themselves eating anything without regulation.

Perhaps it's time to take this seriously and talk about the introduction of a new digital marketing restriction specifically for social media influencers.