The NHS cannot “keep putting out fires” if social media sites “keep lighting matches” by allowing celebrity endorsements of risky diet pills and other dubious health products, its most senior doctor has warned.
The health service medical director today calls on Instagram and Facebook to ban such practices – saying they were capitalising on the insecurities of the young, and heaping pressures on mental health services.
Writing in The Telegraph, Prof Stephen Powis urged the sites to ban promotion of any posts that could cause physical or mental harm.
And he pleaded with celebrities who influence young people to see that they had a “moral duty” to refuse the lucrative endorsements.
The medic said the mental and physical health of teenagers and young people was being put at risk by harmful promotions. He said endorsements of products like diet pills, detox teas and appetite-suppressant sweets could have a damaging impact on those who look up to the celebrities who endorse them.
It comes after this newspaper launched a duty of care campaign calling for more stringent regulation of sites like Facebook and Instagram, in order to protect children from harm.
Social media companies are under pressure from ministers to do more to protect children from harmful online content, amid growing concerns over suicide and self-harm among teenagers.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has warned companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter that he will use the law to force them to act should they fail to remove inappropriate content. It followed the death of Molly Russell, 14, who took her own life in 2017.
Her father said he believed Instagram “helped kill my daughter” with the social media account found to contain disturbing material about depression and suicide.
Levels of self-harm have risen by 68 per cent among girls aged 13 to 16 in just three years.
Today Prof Powis, the most senior doctor in the NHS, urged social media providers – and the celebrities who use them to build a following – to stop feeding insecurities.
He said: “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.”
“Our young people are bombarded with ideas, images and advertising which set such a high bar for what they should look and feel like. And yet there is little accountability for the impact this has,” he writes.
“Where celebrities and the platforms which promote them exploit this vulnerability by pushing products like laxative teas, diet pills and other get-thin-quick solutions, they are taking the health of our young people in their hands and should act with far greater responsibility.”
Last month, 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.
The senior doctor said insecure teens and young people could risk their mental and physical health, in an attempt to emulate celebrities.
Prof Powis 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.”
Research shows that at least one in four young people says that their appearance was 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.
Quick-fix weight loss supplements often contain ingredients which can have a harmful impact on physical health, triggering stomach irritation and diarrhoea, and can also reduce the impact of contraception.
Doctors also concerned about the impact of such products on the mental health of vulnerable teens and young people, fuelling body image anxiety, and a desire for cosmetic treatment.
Instagram’s policies state that advertising must not attempt to generate negative self-perception in order to promote weight loss, or other health-related products or be aimed at under 18s, while celebrities are asked to comply with guidance from the Advertising Standards Authority.
Kim Kardashian, who is followed by 126 million people, was heavily criticised last year by British presenter and actress Jameela Jamil for her Instagram posts advertising Flat Tummy Co lollipops containing appetite suppressants.
Last month she promoted meal replacement shakes made by Flat Tummy Co, captioned: “These meal replacement shakes are so good and they’re helping me get my tummy back to flat”. Her sister Kourtney Kardashian – with 72.9 million followers – followed suit, advertising the same shakes.
The brand was previously stocked and advertised by Urban Outfitters, but has now been pulled after Ms Jamil claimed they were “selling laxatives” to a “young fanbase”.
Source: The Telegraph