Study finds thin influencers don’t drive healthy food choices in tweens

Can tweens’ eating habits be affected by influencer posts? A study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that a thin influencer does not affect the food choices of children between the ages of 11 and 13, whereas an overweight influencer may.

Tweens, teens, and young adults are heavily promoted by influencers and brands. In this tech-driven age, influencer marketing is a huge industry, with influencers advertising clothes, food, makeup, and more. It can have a profound effect on people, especially young and impressionable people. With nutrition being such an important part of a developing child’s health, this study seeks to understand how influencers may affect tweens’ food choices.

For their study, Steffi De Jans and her colleagues used 146 participants with an equal gender distribution. Participants were randomly selected from 3 different schools in Belgium. The researchers created 2 Instagram profiles for fake influencers, one presented as thin-ideal and the other presented as overweight. Influencers were shown holding either carrots (healthy snack) or cookies (unhealthy snack). Participants completed measures of influencer credibility, influencer admiration, cross-parasocial interactions, and food choice.

The results showed that when exposed to the slim ideal influencer, their snack choice was unaffected; the group showed the healthy snack and the group showed 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 containing the unhealthy product. The results showed an effect of weight on perceived credibility, with overweight influencers being perceived as less credible, and on influencer admiration, with ideal thin influencers being more admired.

This study has taken steps to better understand the effects of influencers on tweens’ food choices, but it also has some limitations worth noting. One of those limitations is that this study used a fictional influencer, who likely wouldn’t have the sway or influence over children that someone they know might have. Additionally, attendees were told that they would receive their chosen snack as a thank you, which may have prompted them to choose which snack they would prefer at the time. Future research may yield more snack options.

“This study shows that exposure to an ideal thin influencer did not affect preteens’ choice of healthy or unhealthy foods. Therefore, we suggest that the use of thin-ideal social media influencers does not stimulate healthy eating in preteens,” the researchers said.

“However, exposure to an overweight influencer promoting unhealthy snacks may positively affect children’s healthy food choices. These findings could be explained by contrast effects, the overweight influencer also being perceived as less credible and less admired by tweens Based on this primary finding, it is difficult to make a concrete recommendation for marketers or public policy when it comes to promoting healthy eating among of children and adolescents, as our results would suggest that the best way to promote healthy eating is to use an overweight diet influencer promoting an unhealthy food product.

“As such, we believe it is not advisable to promote healthy eating to children through the endorsement of unhealthy foods by an overweight influencer, as this may perpetuate stereotypes about overweight people to the extent that people who do not have a thin ideal are unhealthy and eat unhealthy foods,” the researchers concluded.

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.

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