In 2020, 323 Flemish adolescents (12-18 years) participated in an experimental study on the question of whether social media influencers can control the eating behavior of young people. The participants followed a series of influencers for two weeks who promoted unhealthy or healthy food on the social media platform Instagram, where you can buy followers through sites. The results of this study showed that influencers who promote unhealthy food can indeed degrade the diet of adolescents. However, this is not the only side of a fascinating two-part story. Influencers could possibly also have a positive and instructive influence on the diet of Flemish young people, which further research will be able to further clarify.
In 2016, the World Health Organization identified the promotion of unhealthy food via the internet and social media (e.g., Instagram, Facebook, TikTok) as one of the issues that may play a role in the increasing cases of eating disorders, obesity, and overweight among young people worldwide. The diet of Belgian youngsters is also in need of improvement; they would generally consume too much-added sugars and fats. Obesity and overweight are today, together with alcohol consumption, the biggest health problems that Belgian young people have to deal with. In addition, a poor diet acquired during adolescence is often continued into adulthood, which can cause health problems such as heart disease, various types of cancer, and diabetes.
Previous studies have already shown that dietary promotion via television influences the eating behavior of young people. However, research into the role of digital media such as the Internet and social media in adolescent eating behavior is not common. Given the increasing use of social media among adolescents, the World Health Organization called on scientists to investigate this more extensively. The popularity of social media among adolescents has not gone unnoticed by food companies, which are increasingly moving their advertising efforts to these platforms. Thus, nutrition advertising aimed at adolescents is increasingly being distributed through a wide range of social media that are less regulated and controlled than traditional media such as television. Moreover, in general, adolescents encounter more promotion of unhealthy food on these platforms than the promotion of healthy food.
Almost 70% of Flemish young people indicate that they follow one or more influencers, giving them insight into the daily life, hobbies, opinions, and eating habits of these people. Along with the personal and direct way of communicating on social media, this often creates the feeling of a special bond with influencers. Young people often see influencers as friends, like-minded people, or someone to look up to. Since friends and idols play an influential role in the lives of young people, these influencers can have a significant influence on their (eating) behavior and ways of thinking.
Influencers often also promote pro-social behavior and positive norms among young people. For example, during the Corona pandemic, some Belgian influencers participated in the campaigns for following the applicable rules and using contact tracing. That’s why it’s important to take a closer look at the possibility that influencers can promote and normalize healthier eating behaviors in adolescents as well. Previous research on this theme seems promising, but is rather scarce and does not focus on influencers, making the current research one of the first of its kind.
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The course of the investigation
The study Instagram food influencers: threat or opportunity? sheds experimental light on the effects of exposure to healthy and unhealthy messages from Instagram food influencers on the eating behavior (intake, preferences, attitudes, and norms) of Flemish adolescents. To this end, the participants completed two questionnaires during individual Zoom meetings. In the first Zoom meeting, they were given an explanation of the research and fill in questions about their Instagram use, age, and socio-economic situation. The participants were then randomly assigned to 8 influencers (who post healthy or unhealthy content) who had to follow them for two weeks. After these two weeks, they spoke to the researcher again and completed a second questionnaire about their eating habits in recent weeks, their nutritional knowledge, and how they think their peers eat. The results were then analyzed statistically using SPSS Statistics.
The results of the study show that the influencers who had to follow the young people did indeed have effects in their eating habits. However, influencers are just one of the many connected factors that influence adolescents’ attitudes, norms, and behaviors around nutrition. For example, boys report eating more and unhealthier compared to girls, young people with a higher socio-economic status would eat healthier and knowledge and skills in the kitchen contribute to a healthier diet.
Two sides of the same coin
The study found that unhealthy influencers make young people eat unhealthier. Adolescents who followed unhealthy influencers for two weeks would have eaten remarkably more unhealthy foods during the two weeks of the study, compared to those who followed healthy influencers. This can result in an unhealthy diet in the short term but can lead to obesity or other serious health problems (for example, cardiovascular disease) in the long term. Therefore, this study supports previous calls from the health sector and academia to increase the protection of this age group on social media through appropriate regulations. For example, young people are protected from impulsive unhealthy food choices as well as from mimicking unhealthy behaviors that are modeled by some influencers.
On the other hand, adolescents who followed healthy influencers for two weeks rated the diet of their peers healthier than adolescents who followed unhealthy influencers. Influencers who post healthy eating can therefore potentially influence nutritional standards among young people in a positive way. Previous research has already shown that ideas about the eating behavior of peers drive the food intake and choices of adolescents. Therefore, this research also ties in with previous research on digital health interventions and urges that influencers possess to promote and normalize a healthier diet among adolescents.
How big is the impact of unhealthy food promotion on social media? Can influencers also positively change the diet of young people, or does the preference for unhealthy food remain too strong? These are questions to follow-up research will undoubtedly answer.