In September, Instagram announced that certain posts will no longer appear on the feeds of individuals under age 18. To be exact, the Facebook-owned photo sharing app plans to restrict the viewership of posts promoting diet products and cosmetic procedures as part of a new policy to make the heavily-used platform “a positive place for everyone,” according to Instagram’s public policy manager, Emma Collins.
In accordance with Instagram’s policy, posts that feature an incentive to buy weight loss-related products – whether that be a mention of the price of the product or the inclusion of a discount code – will be restricted to users over 18. Posts that make “miraculous,” and thus, unsubstantiated claims about diets or weight loss products, and that are linked to a commercial offer will be removed from the app entirely. So, for instance, if an influencer posts a photo of herself with a detox tea product, informs their followers that she managed to lose 15 pounds just by drinking the tea, and provides a discount code for her users to buy the product, that post will be removed.
Reps for nine-year old Instagram say that these impending policy changes are not wildly novel, as Instagram’s advertising guidelines and policies have never allowed for the promotion of weight loss or certain cosmetic products. However, given the marked rise in use of the platform and specifically, the commercialization of it by highly-followed influencers and big-name celebrities, who have taken to promoting weight loss products – from diet teas and supplements to “waist training corsets” – and cosmetic procedures, Instagram says it has been forced to take action.
Instagram, which currently enables users to report posts over the “sale or promotion of drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, weight loss products or cosmetic procedures” – says that in addition to monitoring posts on the back end, it will ensure that its policy “evolves as needed … protect people on Instagram.”
Since its inception in 2010, Instagram has grown to enjoy an active user base of more than 1 billion, and all the while, has increasingly become infiltrated with questionable material, with “influencers like Kim and Khloe Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, for instance, long drawing ire from critics, including actress Jameela Jamil, for promoting weight loss products,” according to the Verge, and thereby, prompting conversations around the “role social media can play in creating pressure for people to look or act a certain way.”
What appears to be of particular concern for Instagram and health professionals, alike, is what Hiba Jebeile, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, and Susan Paxton an Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University’s School of Psychology and Public Health, call the “growing body of evidence pointing to the negative effects of social media on young people’s mental health and self–esteem,” particularly among younger individuals.
“High levels of social media use by adolescents is associated with increased body image concerns,” according to Jebeile and Paxton, and such concerns are bolstered when it comes to “engagement with highly visual social media, like Instagram, and involvement in photo-based activities, such as taking selfies and digitally altering images.” Instagram serves as a slippery slope, the academics note, due to the presentation of “highly selected images by celebrities, influencers, and peers,” including the appearance of widespread – but often undisclosed – cosmetic enhancements, the viewing of which research has shown “influences young women’s desire for cosmetic surgery.” And young much of Instagram’s user base is: Instagram enables individuals – in the U.S., at least – who are 13 years old or older to create an account.
Of key concern for regulators is the promotion of weight loss products, from detox teas to “appetite-suppressing” lollipops, most of which are presented as “quick-fix” solutions without any substantiation for the claims being made. Two years ago, the National Advertising Division took on Arizona-based FitTea for enlisting celebrities, such as the Kardashians and Jenners, to post disclosure-less endorsements and unsubstantiated health claims, namely, that consuming FitTea helps to promote with weight loss, thereby running afoul of the Better Business Bureau’s advertising regulations.
More recently, in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission’s chairman Joseph Simons, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut expressed “deep concern [about] the growing trend of ‘detox teas’ and their false promotion as shortcuts to healthy weight loss and management,” particularly given their marketing to “adolescents and young adults.” Senator Blumenthal pointed to the “exaggerated or blatantly false claims” coming from companies in the nearly $70 billion weight loss industry, such as “Flat Tummy Co., Lyfe Tea, BooTea, MateFit, and Fit Tea,” despite the fact that “these teas do not have any clinically-demonstrated benefit, and some components of the tea” – such as Senna leaves and seeds – “can be downright dangerous.”
The FTC has yet to take any formal action against any of the companies cited by Blumenthal.