- Instagram and Facebook announced a new policy that will block users under the age of 18 from seeing content that promotes weight loss or cosmetic procedures.
- This will include ads offering discount codes or price incentives to purchase products and procedures.
- Experts say the new policy change is a step in the right direction to better protect teens from ads promoting non-FDA approved products and content that reinforces unhealthy body images.
Seventy percent of teenagers between 13 and 17 in the United States use social media multiple times per day, according to a census by Common Sense Media.
And the images and messages they receive in their feeds may not always be the healthiest.
To protect young users, Instagram and Facebook are taking a stance.
The platforms recently put in place a policy that will block (and in some instances remove) content that promotes weight loss or cosmetic procedures to users under 18 years old. (Both platforms require that users are at least 13 to have an account.)
If the content gets through, people using the platforms can report material they believe violates the new policy. This includes ads offering discount codes or price incentives to purchase weight loss products or cosmetic procedures.
“This policy is a step in the right direction consistent with promoting body positivity in young teens,” Dr. Rekha B. Kumar, medical director of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, told Healthline.
“Messages directed at this age group would ideally focus on fitness and overall health rather than looking a certain way encouraged by influencers who may be promoting non-FDA approved products,” she said.
Dr. Anthony Youn, board-certified plastic surgeon and author of “Playing God: The Evolution of a Modern Surgeon,” agreed.
Youn said plastic surgeons like him are seeing an influx of young people using social media as a way to share expectations and wishes for plastic surgery.
“It’s disturbing because we are getting calls from those as young as 18, who look great… and most I turn down because they don’t need anything done. Much of this is due to the influence of social media and people glamorizing plastic surgery on social media in ways that I think are unethical,” Youn told Healthline.
Youn says many young patients show him pictures of themselves photoshopped and filtered to give him an indication of what they’re looking to have done. They also provide him with pictures of their faces from all different angles, in order to point out what they believe are asymmetries.
However, Youn says most of the time, he can’t identify or see what they’re referring to because their perception is skewed.
In many cases, he believes young patients have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) — a mental illness in which a person obsesses about a flaw or appearance that others see as minor or unidentifiable.
“What’s happening with social media is it’s bringing out that underlying body dysmorphia,” he said. “So, if someone has BDD and they weren’t on social media, maybe it wouldn’t become an issue for them. But because they are on social media and see pictures of themselves and compare them to others on social media, it brings the dysmorphia out there and they start having problems with it.”
While Youn turns away patients who present BDD, he says it’s a difficult condition to treat because those with the condition lack insight and acceptance that they have it.
“People who have BDD don’t believe they have it, so they may look at their nose and see a big bump, and we see a tiny little bump, so they think we are crazy for not seeing the bump like they do,” he explained. “This makes it very difficult to treat and counsel them because they think everyone else has a problem.”
When it comes to fitness and body image, Kumar said many teens have unrealistic goals based on what they see on social media.
“Young teens can be very impressionable toward images promoting certain standards of beauty and not be aware of photoshopping techniques,” Kumar said.
“This age group does not have awareness of what healthy bodies look like as individuals progress through life and may feel pressure to strive to look like images that are in fact altered in some way,” she continued.
Still, she says adolescent obesity is a growing problem and promoting healthy body image through influencers focused on physical fitness, strength, and balanced nutrition is the best approach to health rather than unsubstantiated ads for diet products and cosmetic procedures.
“In today’s world, we can’t deny that there needs to be an early awareness of the dangers of being overweight or having obesity, but this can be done without focusing just on physical attributes, but [rather] on other behaviors such as engaging in sports, dance, athletic goals, and learning about nutrition,” said Kumar.
When she works with teenagers who are overweight, Kumar encourages parent involvement.
“I try to work with the parents to model positive behaviors and be supportive of activities that correlate with good health and normal body weight rather than focus on losing weight,” she said.
While Youn performs some weight loss surgeries, he said he encourages patients to take a holistic approach.
“There are different options to try to invasively lose weight, such as gastric balloons that are advertised by cosmetic doctors. They take up space in the stomach to try to prevent someone from eating too much. And there are potentially dangerous procedures that are troublesome, as well,” Youn said.
Before undergoing surgery, he has patients weigh the risks versus benefits.
“There are so many things we can do short of surgery to improve how we feel about ourselves, and plastic surgery should be used as [a] last resort, not as the first option,” he said.
Because teens are still developing physically, mentally, and psychologically, both doctors suggest delaying social media use as long as possible.
“We know from studies that social media use in young people affects their self-esteem and self-image in a very negative way, and that social media makes them less satisfied with their appearance,” said Youn.
“The younger a child is, the more likely they are to get influenced by it because they are still developing and don’t have the maturity, self-confidence, or sense of self to be able to look at a celebrity and say, ‘It’s okay I don’t look like them’ like an adult might,” he said.
Because children don’t have the brain development to process what they see on social media, keeping them away from it as long as possible is the best way parents can help, he stresses.
“We may not be able to deny them access forever, but there is no harm in delaying it,” said Youn. “Giving them access young is starting them on the track of being dissatisfied with the way they look, and potentially leading them to seek out cosmetic surgeries in an attempt to correct an issue or deformity that isn’t really there.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.