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Mental Health: Advertising and Body Image

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 30 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of any link between advertising, body image, and mental health.

The Government acknowledge the possible link between advertising, body image and mental health, including the potential harms that such a link may cause. The Government intend to use the online advertising programme consultation, which closed on 8 June, to develop the evidence base on this issue. Our priority is to ensure that any intervention is evidence-based and makes a real and positive difference. The Government will set out the exact approach having assessed the evidence.

My Lords, with my #liedentity campaign, I have spoken to many young people about their worth not coming from how they look. In the other place, the Prime Minister assured the honourable Member for Bosworth, Dr Luke Evans, that he would look at a body image initiative as part of the mental health plan. Given that Norway has recently introduced a retouched images law, what assessment have the Government made of the potential merits of labelling digitally altered body images used for commercial purposes?

I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate and the campaign in which she has been involved. It is an important issue, and we are still learning a lot. As she rightly said, Norway is about to introduce such a law; France and Israel have introduced it in the past. Sadly, the evidence coming from those studies as to the effectiveness of the measures is limited. There is also a debate about whether those images should be stopped in the first place, rather than allowing altered images and then putting a warning on them. We need to see more evidence about the most effective way.

My Lords, the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report 2021 shows that one in seven girls and one in eight boys is particularly unhappy about their appearance. Young people who are not happy with their lives at 14 are more likely than others to have symptoms of mental health issues by 17, including instances of self-harm and suicide attempts. Despite the Government’s promises of future funding for mental health support for schools and CAMHS, it is clear that young people are not getting that initial front-line support that they need now. How soon will there be mental health counsellors in every secondary school?

When we look at mental health in children and body image, we see that it varies not only among age groups but within age groups. We have identified concerns about poor body image as a risk factor that leads to mental health conditions, but it is not necessarily a mental health condition in itself. We have to look at how much of this was already present in the playground before the age of social media, with people being called nicknames for their appearance. However, that has been amplified by social media. We are working with social media companies and others to find the most effective solution.

My Lords, despite the fact that advertising prescription-only medicines like botulinum toxin to the general public is already illegal, Botox is still widely advertised online by providers of cosmetic procedures. Given the risks of amateur and poor procedures to physical and mental health, what steps will the Government take to improve the enforcement of existing rules so that the online environment is free of these illegal adverts?

A range of issues were looked at in the online advertising programme, including advertising on social media, where people get messages from in the first place, and what the most effective method is. What do we ban? What do we give advice on? What do we give warnings to? It is an incredibly complicated issue, but we are looking through lots of evidence that came in as a result of the consultation.

My Lords, what assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the link between body image, obesity, childhood obesity, diabetes, cancer and early death?

My noble friend has asked me a very concise question, which will require a less concise answer. Clearly, there is a link between obesity and type 2 diabetes, for example, but one of the difficult things in this area, as with much in healthcare, is getting the right balance. The more emphasis we put on tackling obesity, the more unintended consequences there will be for people with eating disorders. There is now calorie labelling in restaurants and other out-of-home places, but some charities working with people with eating disorders are concerned that this may have a negative impact on them. It is always a difficult balance, but we must try to achieve it.

My Lords, the Minister and other noble Lords have raised the issue of social media. What assessment has he made—or is he aware of—of the influence of social influencers, particularly in cases where they are supported by commercial deals that pay them in part to promote certain kinds of advertising?

The noble Baroness makes a really important point about a contributing factor to people having poor body image. We know that there are influencers who promote certain products, and that they often alter their own image so that it is almost an idealistic image—whatever that means. Young people then feel inadequate when looking at those images. We also must recognise that this issue affects not just young people but a range of people—even older people. For them, it might be as a gentle a thing as a comb-over, but if that makes them feel better, great. We must look at this issue in its entirety, and it has been looked at as part of the online advertising programme.

My Lords, what will the Government do to ban or reduce the use of lightening creams? Among the south Asian and black community, we have an issue around the push for lightening creams, which affects the well-being of a lot of young people who desperately want to fit in.

If I have been accurately briefed, I will begin by wishing my noble friend a very happy birthday.

This is a really important issue concerning ethnic minorities and people of different colours. First, young people want to see people who look like them on TV and in the media as role models, to show that they are part of everyday society. Also—I am sure my noble friend will be aware of this—sadly, there is the issue of colourism, whereby sometimes there is a preference for people of a lighter colour within certain ethnic minority groups. People who are darker are quite often discriminated against; they are not necessarily abused, but there is this preference for lighter colours. This is all being looked at. What my noble friend says shows what an incredibly complicated area this is. It is really important that we look at all these issues: is it size, is it appearance, is it colour?

Advanced early intervention is crucial. Treatment for mental health conditions such as eating disorders has consistently unacceptable waiting times. At the end of last year, a record 2,100 children and young people were waiting for treatment, with demand continuing to rise. Can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House when the waiting times will mean timely intervention? What are the Government doing to recruit, retain and train the necessary levels of staff to provide the treatment that is so desperately needed?

I hope the noble Baroness will recognise that before the pandemic, we were meeting the waiting times targets for many younger people. Clearly, as with many things in our health and social care service, the pandemic has had a huge impact—not only delaying the treatment of people who should have been treated before the pandemic, but increasing the number seeking help with mental health issues. As I am sure noble Lords will recognise, for young people those two years were a massive proportion of their lives compared to us. Those are lost years for them, and it has led to many mental health issues. As the noble Baroness will know, we have announced the draft mental health Bill. The NHS long-term plan will have an additional £2.3 billion a year for mental health services by 2023-24, and an extra 2 million people will be able to access support. This will all take time, and we will have to work through that.

Noble Lords have rightly been criticising advertising that promotes unrealistic body images, but the Government themselves are not helping. In April last year, the Women and Equalities Committee published a report on body image. According to it, the Government’s own obesity strategy actually

“contributes to eating disorders, and … mental”

ill-health. The Minister is nodding, so in the interests of brevity I ask him: does he agree with the recommendations of this committee, and what are the Government doing to remedy their approach?

I am sure the noble Baroness will acknowledge that many noble Lords and many people in society want to do something about obesity, through healthy eating, for example. This demonstrates what a complex area this is. With any policy position, we must always be aware of unintended consequences. We must be very careful about the impact on people with eating disorders. Also, do the interventions actually work in the first place, or do they lead to more unintended consequences rather than positive results? One example is calorie labelling on menus, about which, as we know, eating disorder charities have concerns. At the same time, we do not know whether the evidence shows that such measures will help to reduce obesity, and we need to wait for that evidence to come through.