Using big data to change how teens perceive nutrition and health in Bangladesh

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Two young Bangaldeshis at a book festival Two young Bangaldeshis at a book festival

Over 20 percent of Bangladesh’s population comprises of adolescents, who are all expected to enter the workforce in the near future. Yet conditions to ensure that adolescents can live up to their full potential are lacking —especially when it comes to health and nutrition.

Bangladesh is fighting the dual burden of nutrition — stunting and obesity — when it comes to teenagers. Even though stunting has declined in recent years, it remains relatively high, at 27% among adolescents , above the global average. Lack of caloric intake has led to serious deficiencies in micronutrients, including iron, vitamin A, and iodine. At the same time, 23.6% of adolescents are overweight.

To address this urgent challenge, the World Bank is designing a nutrition intervention particularly targeted at this age group. As a first step, we conducted a study to understand how adolescents currently engage with topics related to nutrition and health and what interests them. For that, we went to where teenagers are: online. Around 40% of Bangladesh’s 18.5 million adolescents use social media. Understanding adolescents’ online behavior is key to reaching them with the right messages.

With this proposition in mind, the World Bank turned to Quilt.AI, a platform that indexes and clusters millions of conversations across public social networks and other platforms, read each data point for its contextual information, and draw insights. We investigated adolescents’ social media posts on nutrition-related topics and what information they seek online.

Even though stunting has declined in recent years, it remains relatively high, at 27% among adolescents, above the global average

The work was done in three steps:

First, we studied the online social discourse of 18- to 24-year-olds around nutrition from five social media platforms: Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, from November 2019 to June 2021. We also integrated topics on fitness and exercise, religion and spirituality, and mental wellness, which are key aspects related to nutrition in adolescents’ online and offline lives, to inform the framing of nutrition-related interventions.

We studied 12 million unique searches based on 1,500 search terms from November 2018 to April 2021. Using Quilt.AI’s Cultural AI tool, we analyzed text and images of 6,150 social media posts from adolescents between ages 13 and 18 in rural and urban Bangladesh.

We found that while adolescents’ engagement on topics related to nutrition is currently low, with many showing higher affinity for junk food, there is slow but growing interest on topics like exercise, healthy eating, and diets :

  • Increased interest in workouts and gyms: With the onset of the pandemic, searches related to ‘exercise & sport’ increased by 24% on average between May 2020 and April 2021. Searches related to exercising at home experienced an increase after lockdown measures were enforced in April 2020.
  • Junk food dominates searches: Searches related to unhealthy food such as ‘pizza’, ‘burger’, and ‘ice cream’ dominated 70% of total food and nutrition-related searches from May 2020 to April 2021. Searches related to healthy eating such as ‘healthy snacks’, ‘salad’, and ‘low-fat’ occupied less than 2% of the total search volume. Images and videos of junk food on social media posts with hashtags such as ‘#foodislove’, ‘#happyeating’, and ‘#treatingmyself’ indicated sentiments of linking fast food with a reward and higher social status.
  • Affinity for street food: Another predominant online cluster for adolescents is street food consumers. Some talk about the unique taste, how they miss street food, how TikTok videos incite cravings, and express that street food is their favorite food. Consumption of street food is often linked to emotional and cultural memories. Its accessibility regardless of socioeconomic background, unique tastes, and personal stories define special food experiences.
  • Healthy eating and diets: Searches for general terminology related to food and nutrition, such as “what is healthy eating”, occupied a high volume (73%) when unhealthy-food-related keywords were excluded. Their monthly average volume doubled between November 2019 and April 2021. Searches for improving body image, teenage dietary needs/guidelines, health apps, and anemia grew as well. This indicated a low but growing interest in health-related resources and healthy-eating habits among adolescents.
  • Topics of online searches and posts varied by gender and location. However, across both urban and rural areas, narratives around food were majorly restricted to indulgence, entertainment, and social gatherings.
Bar graphs showing the rural gender skew and urban gender skew in data on topics of online searches.

Second, we differentiated these patterns into three phases of awareness related to food and nutrition, using insights from nearly 2,600 social media posts and 60 adolescent public profiles: social foodies, home chefs, and intellectual advocates.

A table showing three phases of awareness: social foodies, home chefs, and intellectual advocates

Lastly, to understand what adolescents are interested in, we identified four prominent themes using AI clustering from overall adolescents’ posts:

  • Bonding and belonging (16%): Adolescents are enthusiastic in expressing friendship and group bonding.
  • Creative expression (11%): Adolescents celebrate creative expression such as art, music, and writing.
  • Local pride (8%): Adolescents like to show off their surrounding environment such as the community or school they belong to.
  • Aspirational possessions (8%): Adolescents are interested in talking about/reviewing fashion, shopping products, and vehicles on their posts.

We are now working to use these profiles and themes to help shape online behavior-change strategies, bringing adolescents’ attention toward healthy food and nutrition by framing messages in a way that they are likely to pay attention to.

With the rapid growth in internet usage in Bangladesh — and elsewhere — adolescents are increasingly turning to the internet to learn about many real-world issues. If we want them to listen, it is time for us to speak their language. 


Anurag Banerjee

Co-founder and CEO, Quilt.AI

Sayan Kundu

Extended Term Consultant, Mind, Behavior & Development Unit (eMBeD)

Tasmia Rahman

Economist, World Bank

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