Celebrities and influencers cashing in by peddling fad diets and supplements to young people on social media should have their accounts “stamped out”, one of the country’s leading doctors has suggested.
From Hollywood A-listers to reality TV stars, popular figures have been warned they must stop projecting unattainable body types and lifestyles that put “massive pressure” on people at a sensitive and important time of their lives.
Professor Stephen Powis, the National Medical Director of NHS England, said the health service is doing its utmost to help the one in 10 young people who are affected by mental health problems including depression and anxiety.
But he stressed the NHS “can’t keep putting out fires if some parts of society keep lighting matches”.
Prof Powis said young people are being “bombarded” with ideas, images and advertising which set an unrealistically high bar for what they should look and feel like – however there is little accountability for the impact it has.
Half of girls now report feeling pressure to be thinner, while one in four people say their appearance is the most important thing to them, he warned.
Writing for the Daily Telegraph, Prof Powis said: “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.
“Online platforms should stamp out accounts which exploit this vulnerability, and ban adverts for products with a known health risk.”
The leading doctor’s intervention comes after social media companies’ practices were thrust back into the spotlight over the death of teenager Molly Russell.
The 14-year-old’s family found she had viewed content on social media linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide before taking her own life in November 2017.
Her father, Ian Russell, told the BBC he had “no doubt Instagram helped kill my daughter”.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said social media firms need to “purge” the internet of content that promotes self-harm and suicide.
Meanwhile Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright has said the Government is “considering very carefully” calls to subject companies to a legal duty of care.
And NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has proposed the introduction of a mental health levy on social media firms.
Prof Powis’s warning specifically focuses on the effect celebrities, influencers and advertisers’ activities on social media can have on young people, rather than other content that exists which could encourage self-harm or suicide.
He said anyone in a position of influence has a “moral duty to protect our young people”.
“The NHS is on the way to delivering nothing less than a revolution in young people’s mental health services, but – as a taxpayer-funded organisation – other parts of society should think about how they can help ease the demand for NHS care by not tolerating or encouraging practices which make life harder for our young people,” Prof Powis said.
“Everyone, especially those engaging with young people like social media firms and celebrities who profit from them, have a duty of care to do more for our health and wellbeing.”