England’s top doctor has today called on social media companies to protect young and vulnerable users by banning irresponsible and unsafe celebrity endorsements.
NHS medical director Professor Stephen Powis warned that paid-for promotion of products including diet pills, detox teas and appetite-suppressant sweets on social media sites, could have a damaging impact on physical and mental health.
Professor Powis is urging celebrities who are influential among young people to act responsibly when taking payment from companies to push products with health implications.
The medical director said that social media companies should also act and take down posts that promote products that could cause physical or mental harm.
The intervention follows a series of high profile concerns raised about suicides and self-harm of young people linked to advertising and social media.
The Science and Technology Committee has also concluded in the House of Commons that social media companies must be subject to a legal duty of care to help protect young people’s health and wellbeing when accessing their sites, with 70% of 12-15 year olds having an online profile, according to Ofcom.
Last week, the Competition and Markets Authority announced a clamp-down on celebrities who do not clearly label their posts as being paid-for advertisements but there are few rules around what they can promote.
Research from the National Citizens Service shows that at least one in four young people say that their appearance is the most important thing to them, while over half of girls feel pressure to be thinner and a third of boys think they should be more muscular.
Celebrity social media accounts are highly influential, particularly to young people.
The reach of this type of advertising is growing rapidly as brands increasingly choose it as a way to market their products.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: “If a product sounds like it is too good to be true, then it probably is. The risks of quick-fix weight-loss far outweigh the benefits, and advertising these products without a health warning is damaging and misleading.
“Highly influential celebrities are letting down the very people who look up to them by peddling products which are at best ineffective and at worst harmful.
“Social media firms have a duty to stamp out the practice of individuals and companies using their platform to target young people with products known to risk ill health.
“Promoting potentially damaging products with no clinical advice or health warning can be really detrimental to someone’s physical and mental health, and with pressure on young people to live up to idealised images greater than they ever have been, it’s too often families and the health service who are left to pick up the pieces.
“Our Long Term Plan for the NHS sets out one of the most ambitious packages of investment in care anywhere in the world, and as the health service steps up to support millions more families, we need high-profile figures, businesses, employers and others to ask what more they can do to improve our country’s health and wellbeing.”
Quick-fix weight loss supplements often contain ingredients which can have a harmful impact on physical health, triggering stomach irritation and diarrhoea, and reducing the impact of contraception, while also being linked to body image anxiety as people unhappy with their appearance see these products – as well as more intensive approaches like cosmetic treatment – as a shortcut to change the way they look.
Last week, the NHS called on cosmetic procedure providers to introduce new, tougher checks to prevent people at-risk of, or experiencing, Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) from receiving Botox injections.
Studies show that fewer than 10% people who go through cosmetic procedures like lip fillers are not satisfied with the outcome.
Kitty Wallace, Trustee for the Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) Foundation, said: “The rise of celebrities and influencers promoting potentially harmful products such as diet pills, detox teas and appetite suppressant sweets on social media sites is having an increasingly damaging effect on the mental health of young people.
“The bombardment of these idealised body images is fuelling a mental health and anxiety epidemic in young people. If celebrities themselves will not step up to protect their young fans then companies such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter should be compelled to take down these damaging posts.
“Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a disabling preoccupation with a perceived defect or flaw in appearance. BDD affects 1 in 50 people, causes extreme distress and has a significant effect on an individual’s quality of life.
“Many sufferers say that idealised social media posts fuelled their anxiety and self-loathing.
“1 in 3 people with BDD will make an attempt on their lives. With this in mind we need to change our attitudes to advertising on social media, crack down on false advertising and protect vulnerable individuals.”