The role of social media in promoting unhealthy food

Most of the social media users are familiar with the leading picture-based application Instagram. As of April 2016, the six years-old application has attracted 400 million monthly active users who share more than 80 million photos daily.

The continuous increase in the numbers of active users may be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it provides a unique opportunity for the interested researchers to perform different kinds of meta-analyses to track the public opinion of a certain issue. On the other hand, it may violate or infringe the personal privacy for different political or commercial purposes.

In a recent meta-analysis investigation, researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden used the publicly available photos on Instagram to address how adolescents communicate food images. The study published in the journal Appetite issued an alert about how adolescents unconsciously promote high in calories but low in nutrients (HCLN) food through Instagram.

The study focused on Scandinavian adolescents by following the hashtag #14år which means 14 years in Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. Following this hashtag, the authors of the study retrieved more than 3400 Instagram accounts; out of which, only 1001 Instagram accounts belong to adolescents of nearly 14 years-old. The approached Instagram accounts were searchable and publicly available without subscription or privacy protection. So, information retrieval from such accounts doesn’t infringe privacy statements of the original users.

The majority of the identified accounts (85%) shared photos of food items. Accordingly, the authors categorized the food items present in the uploaded photos into different groups covering many aspects, such as food types, food places, and food pliability .

“The most common food items were candy, cookies and other baked goods, sweet drinks, chocolate and ice cream. Overall, these types of HCLN food items could be found in 68% of the images posted on Instagram”, says Christopher Holmberg, the main author of the study. On the other hand, nearly 22% of the presented photos portrayed healthy food items as fruits and vegetables.

Fabricated Instagram photo illustrates branding food items. Photo credits: C. Holmberg et al. / Appetite 99 (2016) 121e129

Fabricated Instagram photo illustrates branding food items. Photo credits: C. Holmberg et al. / Appetite 99 (2016) 121e129

Most of the HCLN food items presented in the photos illustrated very well-known commercial brands. For instance, photos displaying Starbucks Frappuccinos , Coca-Cola, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream were frequently shared among adolescents. The pattern of communicating such brands on the social media reflects the influence of the commercial campaigns that targets primarily the adolescents and teenagers community. Another aspect of presenting such HCLN brands may rely on some social considerations where the adolescents like to present themselves with high profile brands of foods, drinks, and restaurants as markers of online identity.

“This indicates that they are unaware of, or simply accept, this type of product promotion in social media. The fact that the adolescents create and disseminate the advertisements by themselves may imply that this type of informal advertising is more effective than traditional channels”, says Dr. Christina Berg, at the Department of Food and Nutrition, and Sport Science and a co-author of the study.

As previous neurological investigations showed that food images stimulate appetite-associated brain activities, further social studies demonstrated the significant impacts of adolescents on their peers in adopting unusual food habits. So, the authors of the current study stated that we should make better use of social media to endorse countervailing messages that promote healthy dietary habits among adolescents.

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