Teens overwhelmingly engage with junk food on social media because there’s no kale TikTok

Photo: monkeybusinessimages (iStock)

As any parent, teacher, or sentient adult knows, teenagers spend a lot of time staring at their phones. (Actually, we all do.) Much of that screen time is spent on social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and a host of other apps teens use that baffle the rest of us. While they’re using those social networking platforms, teens are exposed to marketing from food brands. And many of those food brands, new research shows, aren’t healthy.

Food Navigator details the findings of a recent study published in the journal Appetite that examined the types of food brands American teens engage with on social media. Unsurprisingly, 93% of those brands produce “fast food, unhealthy snacks, candy, and sugary drinks.” Fast food, soda, candy, and snacks companies have historically been adept at marketing themselves as edgy, fun, irreverent, and young—all of which is appealing to teens. Think of it from an anecdotal perspective: Is a teenager more likely to follow Burger King or Sweetgreen on Instagram? The study also noted that teens not only follow these brands but post about them, essentially doing marketers’ work for them.

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Another unsettling detail the study uncovered is that engagement with these brands is highest among Black teens, Spanish-speaking Hispanic teens, and teens of parents with lower education levels. The authors notes this has implications for public health discussions regarding obesity and diabetes rates among such groups.

Whether the teens who engage with these brands on social media actually eat more of those foods as a result is another question. There could indeed be correlation between teens who eat fast food and teens who follow fast food brands on social media, but which direction that causation flows deserves exploration. In the meantime, the study indicates kale could really use an edgy TikTok account. Who’s on it?

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About the author

Kate Bernot

Kate Bernot is managing editor at The Takeout and a certified beer judge.