Understanding the extent of adolescents’ willingness to engage with food and beverage companies’ instagram accounts: Experimental survey study

Samina Lutfeali, Tisheya Ward, Tenay Greene, Josh Arshonsky, Azizi Seixas, Madeline Dalton, Marie A. Bragg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Social media platforms have created a new advertising frontier, yet little is known about the extent to which this interactive form of advertising shapes adolescents’ online relationships with unhealthy food brands. Objective: We aimed to understand the extent to which adolescents’ preferences for Instagram food ads are shaped by the presence of comments and varying numbers of “likes.” We hypothesized that adolescents would show the highest preferences for ads with more “likes” and comments. We predicted that these differences would be greater among adolescents who were “heavy social media users” (ie, >3 hours daily) vs “light social media users” (ie, <3 hours daily). Methods: We recruited Black and non-Latinx White adolescents (aged 13-17 years; N=832) from Dynata, a firm that maintains online participant panels. Participants completed an online survey in which they were randomized to view and rate Instagram food ads that either did or did not show comments. Within each condition, adolescents were randomized to view 4 images that had high (>10,000), medium (1000-10,000), or low (<100) numbers of “likes.” Adolescents reported ad preferences and willingness to engage with the brand. Results: Adolescents rated ads with medium or high numbers of “likes” higher than ads with few “likes” (P=.001 and P=.002, respectively). Heavy social media users (>3 hours/day) were 6.366 times more willing to comment on ads compared to light users (P<.001). Conclusions: Adolescents interact with brands in ways that mimic interactions with friends on social media, which is concerning when brands promote unhealthy products. Adolescents also preferred ads with many “likes,” demonstrating the power of social norms in shaping behavior. As proposed in 2019, the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act should expand online advertising restrictions to include adolescents aged 12 to 16 years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere20336
JournalJMIR Public Health and Surveillance
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2020


  • Adolescent health
  • Adolescents
  • Food industry
  • Instagram
  • Social media
  • Social media marketing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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