- The social media giants have been under pressure to shield users from influencer posts that make specious claims.
- Some questions on policy definition and enforcement remain, but Facebook and Instagram are moving in the right direction with the new rules.
Social media sites Instagram and parent Facebook are tightening their content standards to restrict advertisements and posts from influencers and other users who peddle weight loss and cosmetic procedures to teenagers. In September, the two social media giants disclosed a policy change which aims to prohibit the distribution of content to users under the age of eighteen that promotes the sale of weight-loss products or even mentions or depicts a weight-loss product or supplement. This content, which often makes bold claims about dramatic results with minimal scientific backing, has been linked to a number of negative impacts on users.
More broadly, Facebook and Instagram said platform users should not post any content aimed at anyone of any age which promotes “weight loss products that include a miracle claim with a commercial offer.” The social media companies did not stipulate what exactly constitutes a ‘miracle claim.’
Mental health experts have long sounded the alarm about the negative impact of social media content on women’s body images. Research shows impressionable teenagers lacking in sufficient life experience to weigh claims and assess consequences are particularly vulnerable to messaging that promotes dramatic improvements in beauty. Experts say these messages can be particularly compelling when delivered by a popular influencer or even a peer the young user admires.
Yet, the negative effects of the pervasive beauty and weight-loss messaging on social media are not confined to the teenage set. Research published in the academic New Media & Society in 2017 drew a strong correlation between the escalating amount of time women from the ages of 18 to 25 spend on Instagram and greater self-objectification and negative body images.
The overarching concern, particularly with respect to teenagers, is that negative body images translate into dangerous eating disorders. These include anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder in which the afflicted restrict caloric intake to the point of starvation. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, with the starvation further complicated by purging behaviors which include the use of supplements to suppress weight gain.
Facebook and Instagram’s move to restrict posts marketing dietary supplements was also well received by nutritionists with general concerns about the use and misuse of weight-loss products that are subject to little or no regulation. The health consequences can be significant. A 2015 article published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that approximately 23,000 emergency room visits annually in the United States were the result of an adverse effect from a dietary supplement.
Policy in Practice
While Facebook and Instagram’s policy updates have won praise from many sectors, there are many questions about enforcement at scale. Today, weight loss and cosmetic procedure advertising on the platform is greyed out, requiring the user opt-in when asked if they are over 18. However, carefully worded advertisements can circumnavigate the platforms’ controls.
It is less clear how the social media sites are monitoring posts from beauty and wellness industry influencers, though a Washington Post article on the policy update quoted Dr. Ysabel Gerrard, a lecturer in digital media at the University of Sheffield in England who guided the changes in community terms, as saying there will be guidelines for human moderators to identify restricted content.
This move comes at a time when social media is under scrutiny for how it leverages data on users and, in turn, what content it exposes to them across its platforms. From Cambridge Analytica’s mining of user data without their consent to target political ads to the way e-cigarette companies leverage social media posts in promoting their products to minors, social media is under fire.
While these particular policy updates may do little to quell vigorous promotional campaigns for sometimes dubious products, the awareness it raises could keep at least some of the most dangerous content away from teens vulnerable to the influencer culture. And the changes do demonstrate that Facebook and Instagram are waking up to the role they play in shaping society, for better or worse.