Once upon a time, adults worried about the sugary breakfast cereals advertised to kids on Saturday-morning cartoons. The times and the frontier have changed, with children as likely to tune in to YouTube or Instagram as Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel. The problem of media swaying children’s diets toward the unhealthy, however, remains the same.
In a study published online March 5 in the journal Pediatrics, UK researchers found that kids viewing YouTube influencers with unhealthy snacks indulged in significantly more unhealthy foods than those who saw influencers with non-food items (or healthy foods) did. Mari Radzik, Ph.D., clinical psychologist in the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, doesn’t find this surprising.
“I think that YouTube and social media can definitely influence the way our families interact with the world,” she says. “That’s why they’re called influencers. You have this super-popular young woman trying out different types of pizzas, and it’s fun and it’s giddy and it’s kind of funny. You used to worry about TV. Now, you need to worry about social media.” With 25 percent of children in the U.S. now considered obese, parents have good reason to try to wield their own (healthier) influence over kids’ diets.
Start by monitoring what your children see online. “Parents need to really be aware of what their kids are being exposed to, whether it’s a computer or a phone,” says Radzik. “I don’t think that there’s attention paid enough yet to some of the messaging around a lot of different things.”
That means it’s your job to talk with your kids about what they are watching and ask questions such as: “Do you think that cereal is really better than any other cereal?” or “Do you think drinking that sports drink could really make you jump like that?” “I think teaching our children to be critical thinkers and be suspicious and thoughtful and leery and wary, and be educated consumers, is really important. And that includes awareness of nutritional facts and good food choices,” Radzik says.
Practice what you preach by modeling healthy eating for your kids, having dinner together as a family and stocking your home with nutritious options. “Kids are not the ones who are buying the food and bringing it into the home, parents are,” says Radzik. “If you have a refrigerator full of sodas and a cupboard full of junk food, that’s what kids are going to eat.”
Radzik knows finding time for family dinners can be a challenge. “I’ve heard the phrase ‘the tyranny of cooking.’ I think families now are on the go so much that sometimes stopping at a fast-food restaurant is a quick way to eat in between events like school, practice, homework and maybe some sleep at the end,” she says. But family dinners are a great way to make healthy eating the norm without making it such a big deal that kids rebel. “The messaging shouldn’t be, ‘Eat your vegetables,’ as if it’s some sort of medicine,” says Radzik. “I think what’s better to say is, ‘This is part of our meal. All of this is good together.’”