Supplementary written evidence submitted by Professor Sonia Livingstone and
Dr Miriam Rahali

 

 

 

Written evidence on influencer culture and children, submitted by Professor Sonia Livingstone and Dr Miriam Rahali, Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science, 12-11-21

 

 

Why is advertising harmful to children, and why are influencers particularly harmful to a young audience?

 

 

  1.      Advertising Literacy

 

Unless children are able to differentiate between advertising and other forms of entertainment, and grasp the persuasive intent of advertising, then they are at risk of deception. This is especially true for children under 12, whose advertising literacy – all knowledge and skills related to advertising – has not yet fully developed. Cognitive abilities, emotion regulation and moral development are still immature for children under 12. These abilities are critical in helping them to:

 

 

Children from the age of 5 start to distinguish advertising from noncommercial media content. By 8, most children have acquired a general understanding of advertising’s selling intent which is knowledge that advertising is created in order to sell products.

 

Regulators, industry, influencers and educators should help children better make this distinction. Transparency is essential, and all ads should be clearly demarcated.

 

Caveat: This remains problematic due to the fact that there is a lack of consistency across the board (both nationally and internationally) when it comes to determining and subsequently labelling ‘ads.’ In the UK, disclosures can be made verbally, but can also be included in the description – and young children may yet be able to read.

 

 

  1.    Embedded Advertising/ Influencer Culture

 

Young children still struggle with significantly integrated and highly immersive marketing in online environments. Online platforms provide opportunities for editorial and marketing content to converge in ways and to degrees that are often not possible in traditional media. Importantly, such communications may lack more traditional signifiers of commercial intent, such as clear separation from the surrounding editorial content, which younger children rely on to trigger their critical understanding.

 

It is only between the ages of 9-11 that children start to understand advertising’s persuasive intent – which is knowledge that advertising is made to generate favourable views toward products. Crucially for embedded content, such as content promoted by influencers, knowledge of persuasive intent develops at a slower pace than knowledge of selling intent. School-aged children and teenagers may be able to recognize advertising but often are not able to resist it when it is embedded within trusted social networks, encouraged by celebrity influencers, or delivered next to personalized content.

 

For 8- and 9-year-olds, understanding the persuasive intent of advertising appeared to strengthen their desire for the advertised product. Children with higher levels of cognitive advertising defences have a better developed advertising-related associative memory network. This implies that the more children know about advertising, the easier it is for them to learn more about it. Based on the assumption that children younger than 10 do not use their cognitive defences to think critically or generate counterarguments against advertising, it is argued that a higher level of cognitive advertising literacy facilitates the processing of the persuasive content of a commercial in this age group, but does not result in a critical evaluation, in turn producing stronger advertising effects, such as the desire for advertised products.

 

Previous research has investigated children’s (ages 9-11) advertising literacy by exploring their knowledge and judgements (and reasoning strategies) of the new advertising formats. In particular, insight is provided into children’s critical reflection on the tactics of brand integration (or embedded advertising). Findings show that:

 

 

Furthermore, the parasocial relationship that can develop between the kidfluencer and the child viewer is concerning and was not brought up during the sessions. Parasocial interaction is the thought, emotion and action that a child experiences during media exposure to a kidfluencer. Because of repeated exposure, these interactions can develop into a parasocial relationship, which is a one-sided symbolic relationship between the viewer and the kidfluencer.

 

This intimacy is especially concerning when combined with commodification. The embedded nature of influencer marketing can be considered problematic because it lowers children’s ability and motivation to recognize it as ‘advertising’. Influencers’ sponsored posts and videos appear between non-sponsored content in their feeds, which results in the simultaneous exposure of editorial and commercial messages. In other words, the integrated nature of these advertising formats creates a challenge for children to recognize them as advertising, distinguish the commercial content from media content, and understand the commercial intent of and tactics used within advertising. This becomes important if children feel as if they know an influencer on a personal level and are trusting of their content. Exposure to these cues could give children the impression that these items are important to an influencer which could impact their own relationship with food and beverages, toys and games, etc. 

 

Platforms should clearly demarcate advertising from influencers from other kinds of content. Furthermore, the volume of influencer advertising that children are exposed to should be minimized, in order to mitigate the risk of harms. This would go a long way in reducing the number of messages that may be problematic (such as the emphasis on aesthetics, body-image and materialism), without overtly infringing on the influencers’ right to freedom of expression and information.

 

Because children are not able to fully understand commercial or persuasive intent, then the platform needs to be regulated. Currently the content landscape is dictated by profit and brand or platform decisions, and it is not in the interests of children. The personalised-advertising, algorithm-driven, maximised-engagement business model has played a large role in creating a commercial online environment. As such, transparency behind algorithms is recommended.

 

Caveat: Without explanation, enforcing a ban – or a limitation on ads/sponsored content –is problematic, and doesn’t fully do the job that society needs it to do. It acts as a shield without providing the tools to be able to deconstruct or be critical of the messages. This is likely to be beneficial in the short-term; but in the long run, stakeholders should be focusing on building children’s critical digital literacy skills.

 

Conclusion

 

The focus of regulation should be where the risk of being online turns to harm. Platforms that lead children (who are unable to gauge intent) towards certain commercial or profitable messages are harms that the Bill or other mechanisms can regulate against.

 

The highly commercial aspect of the ‘influencing’ issue might provide an excellent opportunity to be reminded about the state and value of publicly funded services for children. If young audiences are increasingly viewing ‘influencer’ content, then is it time to ask whether the current provision is delivering what young people both want and need.

 

Concerned stakeholders should continue to further develop medial literacy skills. The UK might become the ‘safest’ place to be online – but how are children equipped to navigate an alternate terrain once they step outside the bubble of UK protection?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Annex: Additional notes and references regarding Children as Audiences for Influencers

 

 

  1.                 Context on how children consume media online including influencer content

 

 

 

  1.                 Children’s relationships with influencers (parasocial, critical, etc)

 

Research shows that this relationship strongly varies by age (and gender).

 

 

Critical thinking (applied here more broadly to ‘advertising’ than influencer)

 

 

 

  1.                 Risks and opportunities of engaging with influencer content

 

    1.      Case Study: Junk Food

 

 

UK Case Study: Coates et al. (2019) Food and beverage cues featured in YouTube videos of social media influencers popular with children: An exploratory study. 

 

A UK study on food and beverage cues featured in YouTube videos of social media influencers popular with children aimed to explore the extent and nature of food and beverage cues featured in YouTube videos of influencers popular with children. (The data provide the first empirical assessment of the extent and nature of food and beverage cue presentation in YouTube videos by influencers popular with children). 

 

Analysis was done on all videos uploaded by two influencers (one female, one male) over a year (2017). The female influencer had approximately 16.8 million subscribers, and the male influencer 9.2 million. Both influencers were popular with children between the age of 5–15 years in the UK.

 

Based on previous content analyses of broadcast marketing, cues were categorized by product type and classified as “healthy” or “less healthy” according to the UK Nutrient Profiling Model. Cues were also coded for branding status, and other factors related to their display (e.g., description). The sample comprised 380 YouTube videos (119.5 h). 

 

The findings show that only 27 videos (7.4%) did not feature any food or beverage cues. Cakes (9.4%) and fast foods (8.9%) were the most frequently featured product types, less frequent were healthier products such as fruits (6.5%) and vegetables (5.8%). Overall, cues were more frequently classified as less healthy (49.4%) than healthy (34.5%) and were presented in different contexts according to nutritional profile. Less healthy foods (compared with healthy foods) were more often branded, presented in the context of eating out, described positively, not consumed, and featured as part of an explicit marketing campaign. 

 

Implications: In the UK, each week 93% of 8–11 year old’s, and 99% of 12–15 year olds, spend 13.5 and 20.5 hours, respectively online, and roughly half of these children (44%/52%) report watching YouTube video bloggers.[13] If the children in the UK who watch YouTube video bloggers spent an hour each day watching this content, it is estimated from this study’s findings that they would be exposed to 104 “less healthy” food cues per week (14.8 cues per hour × 7), which equates to 5387 per year.

 

 

 

 

Quick ‘lifestyle’ note: Kidfluencers comprise a relatively new form of advertising to which kids and tweens are exposed. Results of a survey of 300 adolescents (U.S.) revealed that tweens’ exposure to kidfluencers is associated with their purchase of kidfluencer-related products through a desire to emulate kidfluencers, and that materialism moderates this relationship. Findings suggest that kidfluencers may propagate a lifestyle to which tweens aspire that may manifest itself in changes to consumer behavior.[18] On the other hand, Ito et al. (2013)[19] argued that the viewing of videos that promote a materialist lifestyle (such as toy unboxing videos) is an ‘interest driven’ use of the internet.

 

 

  1.                 Moral panic or…? What are the interesting benefits of positive content?

One of the upsides to digital marketing is that YouTubers, for example, are among the many sources of health information young people encounter in the digital age, and they are increasingly recognized by popular media and public health organizations as a potentially influential source of health information. United Kingdom health campaigns are beginning to make use of YouTubers in health improvement, and research has shown that YouTubers can help address certain health issues, such as obesity.[20]

Furthermore, tech companies can devise tools that can effectively quantify the extent and nature of digital marketing, including techniques such as product placement in user-generated social media content. This will facilitate a better understanding of children’s likely exposure, and the persuasive ability of that exposure, which is critical for the development of effective public health policy in this area.

 

Children report enjoying being part of a “follower” community on YouTube and view influencers as both role models and friends who provide support and advice.[21]Therefore, children who are subscribed to influencers that regularly feature, for example, healthy food and beverages in their YouTube videos – and who have watched these videos for a long period of time – may well be affected by this content. Given the variety of content now available to children through video sharing platforms, policymakers and researchers may want to explore the impact on children of content promoting other health-related (e.g., physical activity) or pro-social (e.g., cooperation) behaviours.

 

 

  1.                 Advertising?

 

 

 

  1.                 Media literacy – if we tell children content is commercial, or mark influencer content from other content, is that sufficient? Will it work?

In “Disclosing Influencer Marketing on YouTube to Children” (2020)[24] the effect of disclosures on the activation of children’s advertising literacy in the context of influencer marketing in online videos is explored. The researchers found:

 

 

  1.                 What should be done? And who is responsible?

 

One might think the responsibility is on the parents, since they are the primary socializing agent of children, and also have (most) control over the internet access/purchases/consumption habits of their children. However, parents with more knowledge and resources will pass that to their children, but the children who don’t have such support systems in place are disadvantaged.

 

Parents play a large role in helping their children be critical of media messages, identify advertising approaches, and resist their influence, so it is also crucial that some of the aforementioned (platform and advertising) measures are in place in children’s digital media environments to protect their needs.

 

There is also a case for focusing on the avoidance of advertising through restriction and regulation, as well as by developing, implementing and evaluating educational interventions and awareness campaigns that acknowledge children’s abilities for critical reflection on kidfluencing and its tactics.

 

Parents should be aware of and monitor children‘s kidfluencer exposure. Educators should provide media literacy training that incorporates content related to social media influencers. As new media platforms are created/monetized, policymakers should adapt policies related to marketing to children.

 

 

 

Notes and sources


[1] Ofcom. (2021). Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report. London: Ofcom.

[2] Wilson, B. J., & Drogos, K. L. (2007). “Preschoolers’ attraction to media characters,” in Paper Presented at the 93rd Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association, Chicago, IL.

[3] Hoffner, C. (1996). Children’s wishful identification and parasocial interaction with favorite television characters. J. Broadcast. Electron. Media 40, 389–402. doi: 10.1080/08838159609364360

[4] Tolbert, A., & Drogos, K. (2019). Tweens' wishful identification and parasocial relationships with YouTubers. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2781.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Berryman, R. & Kavka, M. (2017). ‘I Guess A Lot of People See Me as a Big Sister or a Friend’: the role of intimacy in the celebrification of beauty vloggers, Journal of Gender Studies, 26(3), 307-320, DOI: 10.1080/09589236.2017.1288611

[7] Hudders, L., Cauberghe, V., & Panic, K. (2016). How advertising literacy training affect children’s responses to television commercials versus advergames. Int. J. Advert. 35, 909–931. doi: 10.1080/02650487.2015.1090045. (p.910)

[8] Radesky, J. et al. (2020). Digital Advertising to Children. Pediatrics, 146(1). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2020-1681  (p.2)

[9] Hudders, L., Cauberghe, V., & Panic, K. (2016). How advertising literacy training affect children’s responses to television commercials versus advergames. Int. J. Advert. 35, 909–931. doi: 10.1080/02650487.2015.1090045

[10] De Pauw, P., De Wolf, R., Hudders, L., & Cauberghe, V. (2018). From persuasive messages to tactics: Exploring children’s knowledge and judgement of new advertising formats. New Media Soc. 20, 2604–2628. doi: 10.1177/1461444817728425

[11] Radesky, J. et al. (2020). Digital Advertising to Children. Pediatrics, 146(1). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2020-1681  (p.3)

[12] Coates, A., Hardman, C., Halford, J., Christiansen, P., & Boyland, E. (2019). Food and beverage cues featured in YouTube videos of social media influencers popular with children: An exploratory study. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2142.

[13] Ibid; Revealing Reality. (2019). Life on the small screen: What children are watching and why a report for Ofcom. Available at: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/21/part/3/chapter/4 

[14] Coates, A., Hardman, C., Halford, J., Christiansen, P., & Boyland, E. (2019). Food and beverage cues featured in YouTube videos of social media influencers popular with children: An exploratory study. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2142.

[15] Alruwaily, A., Mangold, C., Greene, T., Arshonsky, J., Cassidy, O., Pomeranz, J. L., & Bragg, M. (2020). Child social media influencers and unhealthy food product placement. Pediatrics, 146(5), e20194057. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2019-4057

[16] Coates, A., Hardman, C., Halford, J., Christiansen, P., & Boyland, E. (2019). Food and beverage cues featured in YouTube videos of social media influencers popular with children: An exploratory study. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2142.

[17] Norman, J., Kelly, B., Boyland, E., & McMahon, A. T. (2016). The impact of marketing and advertising on food behaviours: Evaluating the evidence for a causal relationship. Curr. Nutr. Rep. 5, 139–149. doi: 10.1007/s13668-016-0166-6; World Health Organization. (2017). Report of the Commission on ending childhood obesity. Implementation Plan: Executive Summary. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2017(WHO/NMH/PND/ECHO/17.1)

[18] Rasmussen, E. E., Riggs, R. E., & Sauermilch, W. S. (2021). Kidfluencer exposure, materialism, and U.S. tweens’ purchase of sponsored products. Journal of Children and Media, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1080/17482798.2021.1910053

[19] Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., . . . Watkins, S. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

[20] Harris, J., Atkinson, A., Mink, M., & Porcellato, L. (2021). Young people’s experiences and perceptions of YouTuber-produced health content: Implications for health promotion. Health Education & Behavior, 48(2), 199207.

[21] Ofcom. (2018). Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report. London: Ofcom.

[22] Radesky, J. et al. (2020). Digital Advertising to Children. Pediatrics, 146(1). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2020-1681  (p.3)

[23] Ofcom. (2018). Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report. London: Ofcom.

[24] Boerman, S., & Van Reijmersdal, E. (2020). Disclosing influencer marketing on YouTube to children: The moderating role of para-social relationship. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 3042.