Social media users fed millions of unhealthy food and beverage posts each year

Researcher raises concerns that these online conversations might be hurting children

New research from the University of Ottawa reveals there are millions of posts on social media about unhealthy food and beverages each year. These conversations about fast food restaurants, sugary drinks, candy, chocolate and snacks are not only driven by food and beverage brands, but by individual Canadians, representing a newer form of marketing called user-generated content (UGC). Younger people are vulnerable to UGC because of their increased trust and familiarity of people within their social networks. It is as effective as company advertising - which is cause for concern.

“Canadians are being fed millions and millions of social media posts promoting unhealthy food and beverages each year and this includes children and youth who we know spend an immense amount of time online,” says Dr. Monique Potvin Kent, associate professor at the University of Ottawa and author of the study. “All of this online chatter is just another form of marketing which influences the foods kids eat, which in turn can severely impact their health.”

The research project, funded by Heart & Stroke, examined posts, also referred to as online conversations, by the top 40 food and beverage brands in categories frequently targeted at children and adolescents in Canada. The project also measured a popular feature of social media marketing: user-generated content (UGC), which is when an individual user mentions or shares content about a brand. Marketing campaigns that encourage UGC with hashtags, competitions and other interactive features are effective because users spread the content to their network of followers. One study estimated that nearly one in five instances of food marketing that children are exposed to on social media are UGC. 

“There’s a misconception that children aren’t on social media because platforms have age-restrictions or children don’t have their own devices,” explains Dr. Potvin Kent, “A large study from the United Kingdom found that 60% of children between the ages of 8 and 11 years have social media accounts and we’ve seen similar results in a small study in Canada. Perhaps more shocking is that over 40% of children under the age of four have their own smartphone in Canada and by the age of 15, that number balloons to nearly 80%.” 

Dr. Potvin Kent found that the top 40 brands were mentioned by users 16.9 million times in Canada over the course of one year on Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr and YouTube. Tweets about the top 40 brands led to an estimated 491 billion impressions, which is the number of times the posts were potentially seen by users. Fast food restaurants was the category with the most mentions, or ‘conversations’ followed by sugary drinks. The top 40 brands also posted frequently to their own Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. On Twitter alone there were an estimated 12.5 billion impressions, 99% of which came from fast food restaurants.

“Dr. Potvin Kent’s research shows yet another significant way food and beverage marketing is happening in Canada and how kids could be influenced,” says Doug Roth, CEO of Heart & Stroke. “We will continue to advocate to the federal government to fulfill its commitment to introduce comprehensive marketing to kids regulations across all types of media by fall 2023 to protect the health of children.”

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Kate Comeau
Communications Advisor, Heart & Stroke