By Stephen Beech via SWNS
Social media posts featuring fast food and sugary drink brands promote unhealthy eating among teenagers, reveals new research.
The Australian study showed that when teens like, comment on, or share unhealthy food and drink marketing posts on Instagram, it promotes positive brand attitudes and perceptions among their pals who consume marketed brands.
The research involved more than 900 teenagers, aged 13 to 17, from across Australia who use social media.
Full-color digital mock-ups of fictional Instagram feeds representing each of three scenarios - a sugary drink brand, a fast food brand and a control, such as a mobile phone brand - were prepared by the research team.
In all the scenarios, the Instagram feed featured 'distractor' posts - that had nothing to do with food or drink marketing - such as marketing for popular teen clothing or music as well as fictional social posts from teens.
Embedded in the feeds were social media marketing posts representing the respective experimental conditions.
The study tested reactions to social media posts featuring prominent fast food and sugary drinks brands known to advertise heavily on social media platforms used by teens, such as Instagram.
The marketing posts exemplified the types typically used to market unhealthy food via social media - such as posts featuring a popular teen celebrity or influencer endorsing the product or posts depicting young people eating or drinking the product.
The research team explained that such posts may be ‘earned’ or ‘owned’ social media impressions, such as brand endorsements by celebrities or influencers, so it’s not always clear who is funding them.
The teenagers in the study could view the posts for as long as they liked but usually did so for no more than a few seconds.
As the teens looked at the social media feeds, they were asked to indicate whether they would ‘like’, ‘share’ or ‘comment’ on each post.
Afterward, the teens were asked to list any brands they recalled seeing in the social media feed, before being presented with a list of brands and asked to indicate which of them appeared in their social media feed.
They were then presented with a range of food and drink brands and asked to select which food or drinks they would choose to buy for themselves.
Next, the teens were prompted to complete ratings of their attitudes towards the marketed food and drink brands, and teen consumers of these brands using a seven-point rating scale.
Their intentions to buy the marketed food and drink brands were also measured. For each study scenario, there were nine marketing posts for the featured brand included in the fake social media feed.
Based on the teen’s level of interaction with the marketing posts, the researchers classified teens as “engaged” if they interacted with the marketing post for at least three out of the nine branded food and drink marketing posts.
Teens were classified as "not engaged" if they interacted with fewer than three of the nine marketing posts for their marketing condition.
Study leader Professor Helen Dixon, of the Cancer Council Victoria, said: “The results showed that, when teens engage with unhealthy food and drink marketing posts they see on social media, it can promote more positive brand attitudes and perceptions of peers who consume marketed brands, and stronger preferences for marketed brands.
"On the other hand, social media marketing exposure without engagement can produce opposite effects.”
She says the experiment tested a "very brief" exposure to social media posts featuring fast food or sugary drinks, yet evidence of marketing impacts was found.
Prof Dixon said: “This brief marketing exposure represents a ‘drop in the ocean’ compared to the amount of unhealthy food and drink advertising teens are typically exposed to while using social media, as well as across other media and settings.
"It is likely that with repeated, long-term exposure to unhealthy food and drink marketing via social media, more powerful promotional effects accumulate.”
The findings showed that teens who were already regular consumers of the advertised brands before the study were found to hold much more positive attitudes towards the featured brands compared to non-regular consumers.
Prof Dixon said: "The brief exposure to the marketing posts in this study gave a further boost to these attitudes, among teens who engaged with the marketing posts."
She added: "Social media is an important part of contemporary teenagers’ lives that is used for communication, connection, self-expression, entertainment and education.
"Teens should be free to use social media without being constantly exposed to marketing for unhealthy food and sugary drinks, yet the processed food industry spends millions every year targeting them with ads.
"Unfortunately, when Australian teens go online, they see around 100 promotions for unhealthy food every week - and our study shows that social media posts featuring fast food and sugary drink brands promote the very foods we want teens to avoid.
"In the case of social media, some consideration should be given to regulations that extend beyond paid advertising to paid content posts generated through celebrities and influencers, as these also promote unhealthy food and drink bands to teens.”
Jane Martin, executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, said "Children should be able to socialize, learn and live in a world that prioritizes their health above the profits of the processed food industry.
"Some governments like the UK are introducing a ban on paid-for advertising online. We know public support exists in Australia, with seven out of 10 adults wanting the government to step in to protect children from unhealthy food marketing."
The findings were presented at the International Congress on Obesity in Melbourne, Australia.
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