Girl works at a computer and eats fast food. Unhealthy food: chips, crackers, candy, waffles, cola. Junk food, concept.

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Watching streams about video games on Twitch could be affecting your diet more than you think. Researchers from Penn State and Dartmouth College have found that seeing food advertisements on the social media platform makes adolescents and young adults more likely to crave and buy nutrient-poor foods like candy and energy drinks.

Twitch is a content-sharing platform where viewers can watch and comment on people’s videos. While there are channels for travel, sports, food, and music, most people tune in for video game-related content. Twitch’s audience is rapidly growing with over six billion hours of content viewed in the first three months of 2021 — a 97-percent increase over the same period in 2020.

“You would go over to a friend’s house after school, or on Saturday morning, and if they were trying to get through a particularly tough part of a videogame, you might sit and watch them play. The videogame was an excuse for a conversation. This was certainly true for me. Twitch offers the same opportunity to hang out in a community with your friends, but now it is all online,” says study co-author Travis Masterson, an assistant professor of nutrition, in a university release.

With growing popularity, the streaming platform has monetized its content with the occasional ads targeting young viewers who are moving beyond television and towards interactive forms of entertainment. Popular ads range from junk food to energy drinks, which carry little to no nutritional value.

‘Advertising is pervasive for a reason: It works’

In the study, the researchers recruited 568 Twitch users through a separate platform called Reddit. The participants were mainly male and non-Hispanic White or Asian. They used three scales to measure the participants’ food cravings after seeing a food advertisement.

Results showed that viewers are more likely to crave, remember, and purchase a brand of food they saw advertised on Twitch than those who did not see the ad. Fifteen percent of participants say they experienced immediate cravings upon seeing the advertisement. Eight percent admitted they later bought the advertised product. The results suggest young people who spend multiple hours a day on Twitch are highly susceptible to advertising that involves unhealthy food choices.

“In academic research, we are playing catch up with food advertisers,” explains Masterson. “Advertising is pervasive for a reason: It works, and companies understand how it works. People tend to understand that children are susceptible to advertising messages, but we often like to think that once we grow up and start making our own decisions, adults are immune to advertising’s power. But advertising didn’t grow to be a $100 billion-plus industry in the United States because it is ineffective. Advertising works on us, and on a subset of us, it is especially effective.”

The study is published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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