Millennials are both credited and accused of being obsessed with food. The younger generation is recognized as a driver of healthy eating trends, as the generation that photographs its food until it’s cold, that spends its discretionary money on eating out, and one that admires celebrity chefs.
Social media is where this preoccupation manifests most vividly.
A new study led by Christopher Holmberg in the journal Appetite set out to see what kinds of foods teens share with their friends. The Swedish research team picked Instagram because of its popularity.
A sample of more than 1000 Instagram accounts belonging to teens aged 14 year-old was analyzed.
High calorie low nutrient foods dominate
Food photos were found in about 85 percent of teen accounts, and food was the central feature in 96 percent of these uploaded images (it was placed in the center of the photo, and featured in the description).
The most common foods were cookies and pastry (20 percent of images), soda and lemonade came second (18 percent), followed by chocolate (16 percent), ice cream (11 percent), and candy (11 percent). Fruits occupied 9 percent of images, as did veggies. Overall, two thirds of food photos were of food the researchers categorize as high calorie low nutrient food.
Almost 40 percent of food images prominently displayed a brand name – much like an ad. Food brands that received lots of images were sodas, with Coca Cola in the lead, followed by Ben and Jerry’s and Starbucks.
Teens promote sugary drinks to their friends
The authors note that many of the photos that contained brands mimicked the existing ads the brands themselves produce.
It might be that teens agree with the brands, or, perhaps more likely, that they’re not aware that they’re participating in what becomes an ad. As mentioned above, several brands received a lot of uploads, and this was not by chance, the researchers found out: Many of these uploads were in response to campaigns such as Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke”; Starbucks and Ben and Jerry’s had similar hashtag related campaigns.
The authors suggest that food photos are part of the teen's identity profile on Instagram. Association with food brands plays this role, but then, so does sharing a photo depicting healthy foods such as freshly picked berries
According to a recent report from the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy kids are seeing more unhealthy snack ads than ever before as food brands increased their ad spend on TV and on social media. The report says that companies are moving to newer forms of digital marketing: “As social media sites enlist teens to market unhealthy products virally to their friends this form of marketing raises additional concerns among health experts.”
Social media spreads ideas, behaviors and habits. Brands are already paying attention and capitalizing on the word-of-mouth or, more accurately, the selfies, emojis and hashtags by teens as brand ambassadors.
Not all food is equally photogenic, but fruits, veggies, and many other plant-based ingredients and preparations of healthy foods certainly are – and they need all the free advertising they can get.