Social media has emerged as the hip new place for junk food marketing, with a study showing that adolescents are being made to spread the message about unhealthy food.

World-first research by the University of Sydney sheds light on the digital marketing strategies of energy dense, nutrient-poor food (EDNP) brands to teens and young adults on Facebook.

The study used a sample of top-ranked Facebook pages of food manufacturers, food brands, retailers and restaurants.

Researchers reviewed 27 food and beverage brand pages on the basis of their marketing techniques, follower engagement and the marketing reach of messages posted by the pages.

“Young Facebook users willingly spread marketing messages on behalf of food and beverage corporations with seemingly little incentive or reward required,” says lead author Dr Becky Freeman, from the University’s School of Public Health.

“Any activity that users engage with on brand pages can appear in the news feed of their friends, so marketing messages quickly amplify across social networks.

“This kind of consumer involvement and engagement is unique to social media communication.”

Results further showed that competitions, giveaways and aligning with positive events such as Australia Day were found to be effective means of engagement between users and the food companies.

“Unhealthy food and beverage marketing is prolific and seamlessly integrated within online social networks,” Dr Freeman says.

“Adolescents and young adults are engaging with brands like Dominos, Slurpee and Skittles on Facebook on a near-daily basis.

“Given the exponential growth in use of social media websites such as Facebook among young people, there is a need to understand the techniques and reach of this kind of marketing on these sites.

“The Facebook pages in our study were not simply low-budget fan pages, all were professionally moderated and appeared to be administered by either the company brand owner or an advertising agency.

“In terms of health policy, much of the current work to limit exposure to EDNP advertising is focused on restricting advertisements during children's television programs and viewing hours.

“Our study shows that this narrow focus is likely to miss large amount of online advertising aimed at adolescents.

“As a minimal first step, increased monitoring of how EDNP food and beverages are marketed on social media is essential,” Dr Freeman said.