Content promoting or glamorising “extreme” diets and exercise regimes could be severely restricted on social media platforms under the government’s Online Safety Bill.
Damian Collins, who leads a group of MPs scrutinising the landmark bill, said he hopes government will accept his committee’s recommendation that content that endangers public health should not be easily accessible online.
Clear-cut examples include posts spreading Covid-19 disinformation and glamorising self-harm and suicide.
However, Collins told PoliticsHome that content encouraging eating disorders or severely unhealthy lifestyles can fall within the scope of “endangering public health” too.
If included in the Online Safety Bill, which is due to be put before parliament in the next few months, tech companies would become responsible for monitoring and possibly where appropriate removing content perceived to “glamorise” anorexia or other forms of disordered eating.
In the offline world, the promotion and sale of such content is not illegal. However, its harmful nature is behind the drive among some MPs to enforce a clampdown online.
This month the Financial Times reported that a wider move to force tech companies to monitor “legal but harmful” content is being pushed for by Priti Patel and the Home Office.
While this may not involve an outright ban, it could come in the form of barring algorithms from directing users to posts offering questionable lifestyle advice or other content deemed to be dangerous.
“People shouldn’t be experiencing that content unprompted,” Collins told PoliticsHome.
“[Currently] if you think someone’s self-harming, you can target them with more self-harm material, if someone’s engaging in extreme dieting, you’re going to give them even more of it,” the MP added.
“It’s right to say that’s irresponsible, in other media we wouldn’t allow that sort of behaviour.”
Beat, the UK’s leading charity supporting individuals affected by eating disorders, told PoliticsHome it welcome moves from MPs to force tech giants to crack down on dangerous lifestyle content.
“We would support stronger regulation of content that isn’t necessarily illegal but is clearly harmful in that it’s promoting behaviour that can lead to serious mental illness,” Tom Quinn, the charity’s Director of External Affair, said.
The issue of determining what specifically constitutes legal but harmful content, including in the health arena, is a matter of contention.
Beyond concerns among some MPs that freedom of speech and expression could be curtailed in the process of a “legal but harmful” clampdown, in health and wellness, posts promoting extreme dieting and encouring disordered eating can fall into grey areas.
Excessive exercise regimes and ultra-low calories lifestyles promoted by influencers are often well-disguised as health advice.
Collins told PoliticsHome that the harmful nature of content relating to food and exercise, but also other areas of health such as self-harming, should be determined by Ofcom as social media’s regulator.
“In broadcasting we have standards on taste and decency, and we draw a line somewhere,” the MP told PoliticsHome.
“Here that line needs to be drawn by an independent body, the regulator,” he added.
“The regulator can sit down and say we don’t think you should be actually promoting this sort of content, which we believe is really harmful.”
Quinn told PoliticsHome that to crack down on dangerous lifestyle content “you would need to come up with some definitions and examples”.
“I think it can be done, we would certainly advocate for people with lived experience of eating disorders to be involved in helping to create that,” he said.
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