Scientific Updates /
How social media influences adolescent eating habits
08 July 2022
We have been living in an obesity pandemic for decades, which to a great extent, has been influenced by the obesogenic environment we live in; an environment that rarely promotes healthy plant-based food yet is saturated with messages promoting the consumption of food that is energy dense and lacking in essential nutrients. Hereinafter, the latter will be referred to as non-core food.()
Food marketers play a large role, and spend billions of euros, to promote non-core foods.()
Adolescents are particularly susceptible to the promotion of non-core food within their environment. Twelve to eighteen year old adolescents are at a special stage in their life where their cognitive development is not fully matured, their decision-making is impulsive, yet they are gaining more independency and losing the protective monitoring from their parents.()
These conditions make adolescents vulnerable to the harmful effect of non-core food promotions. This is particularly concerning in the case of social media. Daily, adolescents spend hours using Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and other social media platforms.() Yet, at the same time these social media platforms are infested with promotions and marketing of non-core food.
Yara Qutteina from the Institute for Media Studies (KU Leuven, Belgium) recently obtained her PhD degree with a research (under the supervision of Professor Tim Smits) aiming to assess the relationship between social media food (marketing) communication and eating among adolescents 12-18 years of age.
Some of the main findings
Adolescents are exposed to an overwhelming quantity of social media messages that promote non-core food. These food messages are typically posted by peers, celebrities, influencers or brands. At the same time, adolescents are less frequently exposed to healthful plant-based core food (e.g., fruit and vegetable) messages on social media.()
Exposure to social media food messages is associated with adolescent eating habits. A cross-sectional survey study, found that adolescents exposed to non-core food (marketing) messages on social media were significantly more likely to report non-core food preferences, descriptive norms and intake. The study also demonstrated that the relationship between social media food exposure and eating among adolescents is different depending on whether the food depicted in the message was plant-based or non-core food. Perceived descriptive norms mediated the relationship between self-reported non-core food exposure and intake, while food literacy mediated the relationship between self-reported plant-based core food exposure and intake.()
Which messenger (i.e., peers, social media influencers, celebrities, brands or health organizations) is posting the food message on social media also matters. Non-core food messages posted by peers, are the biggest predictor of self-reported non-core food intake among adolescents, while plant-based core food messages posted by health organizations were the biggest predictor of plant-based core food intake among adolescents.
Social media food exposure leads to changes in eating outcomes. Qutteina Y et al, conducted a field experiment that investigates the causal effect of social media food exposure on adolescent eating, and found evidence that social media (i.e., TikTok influencers) food messages affect adolescents’ eating outcomes, including food intake.
These findings are critical in shedding light on the depth of the problem facing society today, as social media plays a significant role in regularly exposing adolescents to persuasive non-core food messages, therefore negatively shaping their diets and relationships with food.
At the same time, this research highlights the benefit of social media for use by health professionals in the promotion of plant-based core food.
An important role for health professionals
Based on this research, the following recommendations are important in guiding health promotional efforts in the quest for increased plant-based core food uptake:
They advise health organizations and professionals to use social media (and their diverse interactive features) in the promotion of plant-based core food. At the moment, health professionals use of social media is somewhat superficial, mainly using social media to distribute information. Yet, health and communication professionals have a multitude of strategies available to communicate plant-based core food messages through social media. For example, core plant-based food messages can be promoted via competitions and hashtags where adolescents are asked to like and repost a food message.
Health and communication professionals can prioritise social media communication strategies that integrate peers as message sources. Peers are untapped and inexpensive sources of persuasion strategies that can be used in health promotion.
Health professionals can focus the content of core food message on food literacy. The studies of this research highlighted the significance of food literacy in predicting core food consumption.
More effort is needed to discourage the spread of non-core food messages on social media. This can be achieved through two strategies: First, policies that regulate non-core food marketing by influencers, celebrities, and brands on social media. Second, health communication interventions that discourage the spread of non-core food messages on social media among adolescent peers and instead promote the spread of plant-based core food messages. Furthermore, health campaigners can adopt participatory strategies that include adolescents in the design of their own individual food hashtags or health campaigns on social media.
Adolescents are extensively exposed to non-core food messages on social media. These non-core food messages are shaping adolescents‘ relationship with food including their eating preferences and habits as well as perceived norms and food literacy. Health efforts are needed to change this narrative and promote the intake of plant-based core food among adolescents.
To achieve this goal of core food promotion among adolescents, health professional will need to keep up with the fast-changing environment we live in and fully use social media in reaching and engaging with young adolescents.
World Health Organization. (2016a). Media Center: Obesity and Overweight. World Health Organization (WHO). Retrieved August 5th from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/
Federal Trade Commission. (2012). A Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents: Follow up report. Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/reports/review-food-marketing-children-and-adolescents-follow-report/121221foodmarketingreport.pdf
Beaudoin, C. E. (2014). The Mass Media and Adolescent Socialization: A Prospective study in the Context of Unhealthy Food advertising. Journalism and Mass communication Quarterly, 91(3), 544-561. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077699014538829
GlobalWebIndex. (2018). GlobalWebIndex’s flagship report on the latest trends in social media. https://www.gwi.com/hubfs/Downloads/Social-H2-2018-report.pdf
Qutteina, Y., Hallez, L., Mennes, N., De Backer, C., & Smits, T. (2019b). What Do Adolescents See on Social Media? A Diary Study of Food Marketing Images on Social Media. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2637. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02637
Qutteina, Y., Hallez, L., Raedschelders, M., De Backer, C., & Smits, T. (2021). Food for teens: how social media is associated with adolescent eating outcomes. Public Health Nutrition, 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980021003116
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