ROCHESTER, Minn. — A new study of the most popular children's channels on YouTube has learned that the widely watched content is rife with carefully placed shots of fast food, candy and junk food.

The authors of the paper, published last month in the journal Pediatrics, looked at 418 videos from the five most popular "kid influencers" on the website.

As the name suggests, kid influencers are like Kardashians for the grade-school set: young children enlisted by their parents to try out toys and foods, pocketing endorsement and advertising deals in the process.

Influencers hold a unique, emerging position in the commercial space in that, compared to celebrities, they appear to resemble unbiased "regular" people, and therefore come off as more trustworthy.

Research suggests that more than 80% of parents with children under 12 allow them to watch YouTube, and that 35% of children do so regularly.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The authors looked at the most popular videos for five leading kid influencers, channels named Ryan's World, Sandarooo Kids, Engineering Family, Daily Bumps and YouTube Family.

After the authors had watched and rated 418 videos for their food content, they found 179 or 43% featured food, the vast majority of that (90%) branded food with low nutritional content like fast food, junk food, candy and soft drinks.

The videos had been watched more than one billion times, a level of exposure the authors called "staggering."

"Parents may not realize that kid influencers are often paid by food companies to promote unhealthy food and beverages in their videos," lead author Marie Bragg said in a statement. "We need a digital media environment that supports healthy eating instead of discourages it."

An assistant professor of public health at New York University, Bragg says that YouTube has become even more influential during COVID-19, as parents attempt to work from home with very young children taking classes online.

"Our study is the first to quantify the extent to which junk food product placements appear in YouTube videos from kid influencers."

The brands identified included McDonald’s, Hershey, M&M’s, Skittles, Oreo, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s Froot Loops, Dairy Queen, Pop Tarts, Reese’s, Taco Bell and Starbucks. The segments that featured healthy, unbranded food items (like fruits or vegetables) made up just 3% of the foods shown.

The $26 million kid

The most successful kid influencer working today is 8-year-old Ryan Kaji, whose channel Ryan's World is watched by 23 million subscribers.

A recent episode illuminates the ease with which children's YouTube kid influencer content is able to drift effortlessly into and out of the promotion of junk food, whether paid or not. It featured the boy copying everything his dad says when, at the one-minute mark, the sketch moves the gag in the family kitchen.

Once there, a full half-minute is spent watching the child grab a box of Nestle's Drumstick-branded ice cream bars from his father, opening and then eating the product, all before saying "MMMM." There is no mention attached to the clip stating whether Nestle paid the child for the shot. The child's parents have stated that they follow all disclosure requirements.

Someone is paying the show. The channel is reported to have earned the child $26 million last year in exchange for endorsement deals that critics say are not always clear, leading one watchdog group to file a complaint with the FTC last year.

Advertising to children on screens has long been regarded as unethical given that children younger than the age of 8 children cannot discern commercial intent.

Should you tell a preschooler, for instance, that Lucky Charms are "magically delicious," chances are good that the child will believe the food is literally imbued with magic. They would not know that the pitch was a different form of statement from every other form of entertainment.

Children cannot buy products, of course, but advertising to children is widely effective due to "pester power," or the ability of children to sway parental purchases.

Advertising to children is not allowed in the United Kingdom, but America has only asked the food industry to self-police, a process producing negligible results. Meanwhile, the internet is largely unregulated. The FTC requires online influencers to disclose paid relationships, but that, too, is largely unenforced.

On top of all this, native advertising, or the nesting of products into shots, has effectively nullified the 30-second spot, further blurring the lines in the understanding that the most effective advertising is the advertising you do not see.

The authors of the Pediatrics paper hope that parents take steps to control their children's use of YouTube, such as turning off the autoplay feature.