New legislation could curb the harmful impact of social media on body image

Online organisations have a real opportunity to use their influence for good, but many still allow their platforms to host a wide range of damaging content – the online harms bill could help

Luke Evans
Wednesday 27 October 2021 10:21
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<p>‘Disclaimers still have a part to play, but the online harms bill is the perfect opportunity to recognise body image in law’ </p>

‘Disclaimers still have a part to play, but the online harms bill is the perfect opportunity to recognise body image in law’

The government’s forthcoming online harms bill presents a real opportunity for social media organisations to start assuming a greater duty of care for their users. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be campaigning for body image to be listed as a priority harm in this legislation, which, if successful, would recognise body image for the first time in UK law.

As recent developments from the Facebook leaks have highlighted, the need for this could not be more pressing.

Last year, I proposed the body image bill in parliament, which would require advertisers and influencers to label images that have been digitally altered. Israel, France, and, most recently, Norway, have all introduced similar legislation to protect young and vulnerable people from unrealistic and potentially dangerous depictions of the way we look.

While ultimately, I believe disclaimers still have a part to play in helping to solve the problem, the online harms bill is the perfect opportunity to recognise body image in law in the first instance.

There is little doubt that concerns about the way we look are having a profound effect on the population. In April, the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry into body image found that concerns about the way we look “start younger, last longer, and affect more people than ever before”, with 61 per cent of adults and 66 per cent of children feeling negative, or very negative, about their body image “most of the time”.

Body image concerns and eating disorders among men are “rising rapidly”, the committee found, and there has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of children accessing services for eating disorders since 2016/17. In my role as a GP before becoming an MP, I saw first-hand how social media use can have a real, tangible and dangerous impact on eating disorders and body confidence issues.

Outside of the parliamentary and medical world, the 5Rights Foundation recently demonstrated how children joining social media are quickly exposed to content relating to eating disorders, self-harm and suicide. Their study created 10 “avatars” that replicated the experiences of young adults online, all registered on Instagram and TikTok with ages between 13 and 17.

When researchers searched #skinny on Instagram using one of the female avatars, they immediately found accounts promoting diets and eating disorders, as well as pages advertising appetite suppressants.

On TikTok, searching #thin, researchers found content showing users how to “get dream legs”, or lose weight in a week. When the avatar for 14-year-old “Justin” searched #bodygoals on Instagram, he was shown edited images of extremely muscular, well-built and athletic men. Interacting with this content quickly prompted the platform’s algorithms to find similar content it believed the avatars may like, in order to maximise engagement.

From an early age, these platforms are helping to perpetuate the notion amongst young people that an ultimately unachievable presentation of body image is a “goal”, rather than showing their potentially impressionable users healthy, realistic body types. I believe these organisations have a real opportunity to use their influence for good, yet instead allow their platforms to host a wide range of damaging content.

In September, leaked internal Facebook documents revealed that Instagram, which Facebook owns, makes “body image issues worse for one in three teens”. A similar internal study found that more than 40 per cent of those who reported feeling “unattractive” said the feelings started when using Instagram.

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Facebook refutes the methods used in the 5Rights study, but presumably cannot deny the findings of its own damning internal research. This week, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen attended a parliamentary hearing, claiming that Facebook’s research also found that Instagram in particular encouraged “social comparison about bodies [and] about people’s lifestyles”. It is not difficult to see how such a phenomenon could prove highly damaging to body image and body confidence.

The government’s forthcoming online harms bill is, therefore, the perfect opportunity to tackle this problem. To fail to recognise body image would be a missed opportunity for social media users, their mental health and their body confidence.

Dr Luke Evans is the Conservative MP for Hinckley and Bosworth

His #RecogniseBodyImage campaign is here

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