The study reveals that adolescents have a preference for sharing images of unhealthy foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients.
Christopher Holmberg, one of the researchers behind the study, told FoodNavigator the trend could indicate a gradual shift in the way unhealthy foods are marketed to younger consumers.
The study, published in Appetite journal , is based on an analysis of over 1000 Instagram accounts belonging to Scandinavian adolescents.
Instagram is an online image sharing social network with over 300 million active users.
According to the study, eighty-five per cent of the accounts shared at least one food image. Typically, the most common food items were candy, cookies and other baked goods, sweet drinks, chocolate and ice cream. Only 22 per cent of the pictures displayed fruits and vegetables.
Holmberg, from the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Food and Nutrition and Sport Science, said: “Overall, these types of high-calorie and low-nutrient food items could be found in 68% of the images posted on Instagram.'
Compared with other food categories, the researchers also discovered a particularly strong link between unhealthy foods, positive descriptions and festive environments, such as birthday parties.
Researchers found that Coca Cola, Frappuccino from Starbucks and ice cream from Ben & Jerry's are well represented in the posted images and therefore something the teenagers helped advertise through their Instagram accounts.
The study noted; “Experimental studies have demonstrated that peers in a social media setting can influence children and adolescents to adjust their candy intake and choose unfamiliar foods. Research in neuroscience also indicates that images of food can affect appetite-related brain activity.”
With the growing popularity of image-based communication, Swedish teenagers are said to have moved away from text based communication.
It has been reported that 91% of Swedish adolescents aged between 13 and 16 use social media and that Instagram was the most used service.
According to the study, Instagram is used by 75% of young Swedish people. In the US 52% of teens aged between 13 and 17 years are reported to use Instagram.
Given the controversy surrounding marketing unhealthy foods to children through traditional media and the growth of social networks such as Instagram, Christopher Holmberg said the study indicated a shift in the way these foods are advertised.
He said: “Previous research has indicated that food brands capitalise on users' online social networks to expand the reach and personal application of their advertising, and that children and adolescents are the most receptive to engage with such content.
“So, besides being exposed to flashy adverts, there are also these more customised and personalised ways that food brands are being promoted in social media. It is also likely that the impact of food marketing campaigns which utilise several digital media platforms, and that engage individually with consumers, will be greater than that of traditional marketing.”
In light of the study’s findings, Holmberg called on parents to make teenagers aware of how they contribute to food manufacturers' persuasive marketing.
He said: “The ability to comprehend and evaluate health information from online sources is commonly defined as eHealth literacy. Results from our study imply that eHealth literacy initiatives need to take into account food marketing transmitted by the adolescents themselves in social media.”
He added: “On a more positive note, our study also indicate that fruits and vegetables were depicted on 22% of the images. These type of motifs could, for example, be used to encourage adolescents to photograph and share their endeavors in the kitchen with fellow classmates.
“This might inspire other adolescents to cook at home. It could also be used to share healthy and enjoyable breakfast ideas, as skipping breakfast is common among adolescents and it might lead to overeating later during the day. So I think we should also view social media as a tool that can be used to facilitate positive and healthy social reinforcement.”
Source: Appetite Journal
Published online ahead of print 1 April 2016, doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2016.01.009
"Adolescents' presentation of food in social media: An explorative study"
Authors: Christopher Holmberg, John E. Chaplin, Thomas Hillman, Christina Berg