Can tweens’ eating habits be affected by messaging from influencers? A study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that a thin influencer does not affect food choice in kids between 11 and 13, while an overweight influencer may be able to.
Tweens, teens, and young adults are subject to a lot of promotion from influencers and brands. In this technology-driven age, influencer marketing is a huge industry, with influencers advertising clothes, food, makeup, and more. This can have a profound effect on people, especially individuals who are young and impressionable. With nutrition being such an important part of a developing child’s health, this study seeks to understand how influencers can affect food choice for tweens.
“As children are extensively exposed to sponsored influencer content on social media nowadays, and prior research has shown that much of this sponsored influencer content entails the promotion of unhealthy foods (foods high in sugar, salt and/or fat) to children and that this content affects children’s and adolescents’ unhealthy food preferences, choices and intake, we wondered if this influencer content could also be deployed to promote a healthy nutrition and a healthy lifestyle among children,” explained study author Steffi De Jans, a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University.
For their study, de Jans and colleagues utilized 146 participants with an even gender split. Participants were randomly selected from 3 different schools in Belgium. Researchers created 2 Instagram profiles for fake influencers, one who was presented as thin-ideal and one who was presented as overweight. Influencers were shown holding either carrots (healthy snack) or cookies (unhealthy snack). Participants completed measures on influencer credibility, influencer admiration, trans-parasocial interactions, and food choice.
Results showed that when exposed to the thin-ideal influencer, their choice of snack was not affected; the group shown the healthy snack and the group shown the unhealthy snack chose the unhealthy snack at similar rates. When exposed to the overweight influencer, participants were more likely to choose the healthy snack after seeing the post with the unhealthy product in it. The results showed an effect of weight on perceived credibility, with overweight influencers being perceived as less credible, and on influencer admiration, with thin-ideal influencers being more admired.
This study took steps into better understanding influencers effects on food choice for tweens, but it also has some limitations to note. One such limitation is that this study utilized a fictitious influencer, which likely would not have the sway or influence on kids that someone they know of might. Additionally, participants were told they would be given their chosen snack as a thank you, which may have influenced them to pick whichever snack they would prefer at the time. Future research could give more snack options.
“This study shows that exposure to a thin-ideal influencer did not affect tweens’ choice for healthy vs. unhealthy foods. Hence, we suggest that using thin-ideal social media influencers does not stimulate a healthy diet among tweens,” the researchers said.
“However, exposure to an overweight influencer promoting unhealthy snacks can positively affect children’s choice of healthy food. These results could be explained by contrast effects, as the overweight influencer is also perceived as less credible and is admired less by the tweens. Based on this main result, it is difficult to draw a concrete recommendation for marketers or public policies when it comes to promoting healthy food to children and adolescents, as our results would suggest that the best way to promote a healthy diet is by using an overweight influencer promoting an unhealthy food product.”
“Thus, we believe that it is not advisable to promote healthy food to children through the endorsement of unhealthy food by an overweight influencer, as this may perpetuate the stereotypes regarding overweight people in that people who do not have a thin ideal are unhealthy and eat unhealthy food,” the researchers concluded.
De Jans told PsyPost that “future research should further examine if and how social media influencers can be deployed to promote a healthy diet and lifestyle (e.g., by increasing food literacy among their children).”
The study, “Impact of Thin-Ideals in Influencer Posts Promoting Healthy vs. Unhealthy Foods on Tweens’ Healthy Food Choice Behaviors“, was authored by Steffi De Jans, Liselot Hudders, Brigitte Naderer, and Valentina De Pauw.