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Researcher of the Month

#SponsoredAds: the impact of influencers on children

A new policy brief, written by Dr Miriam Rahali and Professor Sonia Livingstone, considers how children’s connection to technology has created new marketing opportunities for influencers and ‘kidfluencers’ on social media and video-sharing platforms. They note that influencers frequently produce videos and posts which ‘blur the boundaries between commercial and entertainment content’. Children are very susceptible to hidden or embedded marketing as their ability to identify persuasive messages is not yet honed and kidfluencers seem to be authentic, friendly and honest figures, who often feel like friends. 

Our Researchers of the Month examine the opportunities and challenges that influencer culture presents to young children, assess existing regulation and make recommendations to parents, educators, regulators and video-sharing platforms.

The report has been produced in response to the UK Parliament’s Digital Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which is currently conducting an inquiry into influencer culture.

Summary

YouTube has emerged as an alternative to traditional television and is particularly popular with young children. Recent research found that 97% of British children aged 5-15 use video-sharing platforms like YouTube. Collectively, the top ten UK ‘kidfluencers’ have a subscriber count of 57,824,000, and have accumulated more than 19.18 billion video views. 58% of children and young people report spending 2.5 hours a day watching their favourite vloggers do things like playing games, unboxing toys, reviewing products or going through their daily routine.

Children’s critical thinking skills are still developing and they are less able than adults to control their impulses. This leaves them more vulnerable to the persuasive effects of advertising. Research shows that 97% of videos aimed at under 8s feature adverts. Frequently, advertising and sponsorship are embedded into video content, with 45% of videos on YouTube featuring or promoting products for children to buy. The engaging, credible personas of influencers, and the fun nature of the posts and videos, makes it harder for children to recognise the content as advertising. 

Whilst not all content is commercially driven and it is possible that some children are positively affected by some influencers, many videos promote materialism and might negatively influence children’s ideas about consumption and play. Children often form ‘parasocial relationships’ with influencers, where they feel that they share a genuine connection. This is heightened by the possibility of active interactions, such as ‘likes’ and comments. Whilst this is not negative per se, the presence of advertising means that this relationship can become distorted or exploitative. The kidfluencer phenomenon is therefore a cause of concern around children’s access to social media. 

Implications

“A sustainable long-term solution requires buy-in from multiple stakeholders.”

Dr Rahali and Professor Livingstone advise that advertisers and influencers must visibly disclose adverts, preferably both in writing and verbally, as young children may not yet be able to read. Platforms should seek to minimise the volume of influencer advertising that is promoted to children, devise tools that can effectively quantify the extent and nature of digital marketing and be more transparent about algorithms.

Implications for parents – The solution to this issue is not all down to parents! However, parents can help through actively monitoring children’s internet use and reducing their contact with advertising through screening, discussions and filtering. Strengthening children’s skills in recognising embedded advertising formats is important, as is instilling critical responses to online advertising.

Implications for schools – Schools can develop media literacy by incorporating content such as games and informational vlogs into the curriculum for assignments related to digital platforms. Advertising literacy training that is relevant to influencers and strengthen skills in recognising embedded adverts would be helpful.

Resources Created from and Related to this Research

Dr Miriam Rahali, Visiting Fellow in the Department of Media and Communications and Professor Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology, both at LSE.

Dr Rahali’s current research focuses on the intersection of children and media, with a specific interest in advertising, consumer behaviour, digital literacy and skills development. She holds an undergraduate degree from Columbia University, a Master’s degree in Special Education, and a PhD from LSE. She has worked on inclusive education in various roles within academia and the third sector.

Professor Livingstone has published 20 books on media audiences, children and young people’s online risks and opportunities and media literacy. She has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, OECD, ITU and UNICEF, and others, on children’s internet safety and rights in the digital environment.

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