Diet Products (Celebrity Endorsements)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 27th March 2019.

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Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I begin by thanking Shona Robison for lodging the motion. I also want to congratulate Mandy Jones, who launched the petition, and welcome her to the Parliament.

I am fairly certain that this is the first time that this topic has been brought to the chamber. However, what we have heard today clearly shows that it is a serious emerging issue that merits our full attention. I will talk about what we are doing in Scotland, but we should not forget that this matters to people worldwide. The ubiquity of social media, and its effects on body image, should be of universal concern.

I agree with Shona Robison that we all need to start thinking carefully about the impact that celebrity endorsement of dietary supplements can have on our physical and mental health. I will use some of my time to speak about that broader picture.

First, it is worth focusing on the consequences for mental health of this type of advertising, and the connections between it and negative body image. They are closely interrelated. There is good evidence that body image concerns are associated with poorer mental wellbeing among children and adolescents. Across the UK, young people who describe themselves as being “relatively unhappy” with their appearance report higher levels of behavioural and emotional difficulties than those who are “relatively happy” with their appearance. Similarly, adolescents who describe themselves as being “too fat” report lower mental wellbeing than those who describe themselves as being “about the right size”. We also know that adolescent girls in Scotland tend to have a poorer perception of how they look than boys do, and that gap is widening. The 2014 health behaviours in school-aged children survey found that, at all ages, girls are more likely than boys to report that they are “too fat”, and are less likely to think that they are good looking. Those numbers are hugely concerning.

There is an overarching point about stigma. Young people tell us that there are all sorts of barriers that prevent them from talking openly about their mental health, and seeking help when they need it. One of those many reasons is the pressure on young people that unrealistic images can create, particularly when presented on social media. That, in turn, risks the normalisation of unhealthy behaviours.

We should not be in any doubt about how normalised dietary supplements have become. The issue is not just how they are marketed, particularly through social media. It is also to do with the fact that they are sold widely, including on the high street. We should also be in no doubt that they are potentially unhealthy—I use that term in the broadest possible sense.

As we have heard, celebrities and many others have promoted a variety of dietary products through their various social media channels. Those promotions can reach literally tens of millions of people in real time. The demographics of platforms such as Instagram mean that, very often, those are young people.

The products in question are carefully and deliberately marketed as a lifestyle choice, and are often sold in packs containing weekly or monthly supplies. They are clearly designed to encourage people to take them every day; they are self-evidently not one-off supplements. They are also unregulated, with their full effects often disguised, or undisclosed entirely.

These products promise quick and easy weight loss and associated health benefits. At best, they are misleading; at worst, they can be actively dangerous. The fact that they are casually promoted through platforms such as Instagram or Twitter, as if just part of the normal browsing experience, is deeply troubling.

Just last month, we had eating disorders awareness week. What we have heard today is part of that story. This is ultimately about the relentless pressure that society exerts on people, and particularly young women, to conform to an expectation of perfection. More and more young people tell us that body image, and dissatisfaction with their appearance, harms their mental wellbeing. Seeing celebrities who have tens of millions of followers on social media promoting appetite-suppressing products is a significant contributing factor to that harm.

I want to mention three specific pieces of work that the Government will be taking forward in response to some of these issues. First, we will publish an analytical research report over the coming weeks that will explore the reported worsening of mental wellbeing among young women in Scotland. Body image and social media are two of the key themes of that report, which I hope will also address the relevant recommendations that are contained in the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee’s “Report on children and young people's mental health”, which was published earlier this month.

Secondly, I announced in February that we will produce Scotland-specific advice on the healthy use of social media. That advice will be co-produced by young people for young people, and I intend for it to be world leading. I am happy to commit today that this topic will be included in the advice. In particular, I want to ensure that young people are properly informed about how social media can promote unrealistic expectations, and how they can avoid that trap.

Thirdly, we will continue our direct conversations with young people on what matters to them with regard to mental health. Members might be aware of our feels FM campaign—in partnership with the see me programme—which used the power of music to encourage young people to talk about how they are feeling. Thousands of young people took part and the details of what they told us will be published over the coming months. I am determined that an on-going dialogue with young people will be at the heart of how we develop our policy on mental health, and body image is an issue that young people frequently raise as a concern.