Health influencers or health hazards: The dark side of wellness influencers

Manisha Kapoor of ASCI dives into the world of health influencers, unraveling their impact on our lives, one Instagram post at a time.

Social Samosa
18 Sep 2023 Updated On Sep 22, 2023 11:02 IST
Health influencers 2

In the digital age where screens reign supreme and social media sensations rule the roost, one category of influencers stands out prominently - the self-styled health gurus. These modern-day sages dispense advice on everything from achieving six-pack abs and drinking kadha to meditation and mental well-being. But it's time to pause and ponder: are they truly guiding us toward a healthier life, or are they cleverly steering us into the abyss of diets, detoxes, and dubious products? In this exploration, we dive into the world of health influencers, unraveling their impact on our lives, one Instagram post at a time.

A recent case where a prominent health influencer promoted a vegan diet, but was caught by another vlogger eating fish “because her doctor told her so” is just the tip of the iceberg.

In July 2020, a fashion influencer in India faced backlash from her followers for offering mental therapy sessions for a nominal fee on social media amidst the pandemic. She offered to be a good listener to those who were unhappy by charging them ₹1500. She was criticized for her actions as she had no degree in psychology or mental health therapy.

When it comes to health influencers, the lines between expert advice and personal opinion are blurred. Consumers often take their word for the gospel, especially seeing their chiseled physiques, radiant skin, and persuasive charisma. These health influencers promise the key to a healthier, happier life. Yet, in the abundance of wellness tips and dietary guidance, there are some lurking dangers that consumers must be aware of:

The abundance of misinformation

 One of the gravest dangers is the spread of misinformation. While many influencers may genuinely aim to promote healthier lifestyles, not all have the qualifications or scientific understanding to do so accurately. As a result, their advice can be flawed, misleading, or even dangerous.

Setting unrealistic expectations

Health influencers often showcase their "ideal" bodies as the epitome of health and well-being. They portray a glamorous lifestyle filled with picturesque meals, expensive workout gear, and seemingly endless energy. While their content can be inspiring, it also sets unrealistic expectations for their followers who then believe that by buying into the products and lifestyle promoted by these influencers they too can achieve these usually unattainable goals. Also, what works for one person may not be suitable for another, and blindly following one-size-fits-all recommendations can lead to health problems.

For example, an influencer's intense workout routine might not be suitable for someone with specific medical conditions or physical limitations. Without individualized guidance, consumers may push themselves too hard, risking injury or burnout.

Unbridled promotions: Many health influencers monetize their platforms through sponsored posts and product endorsements. While there's nothing wrong with partnerships, the danger arises when influencers promote products without a genuine understanding of their effectiveness or safety.

Consumers may trust these endorsements blindly, assuming that the influencer's endorsement equates to a quality product. This can lead to the purchase of ineffective or harmful products, as some influencers may prioritize financial gain over their followers' well-being. In many cases, the influencers may not even be qualified to understand what they are promoting, or the long-term effects of a particular product being endorsed.

Mental health is another area where influencers give tons of advice that may not have any scientific basis. Mental health is a professional field that needs years of practice and rigor before advising a single patient. But on social media, it’s a free-for-all.

Delaying professional help

 Perhaps one of the most unfortunate consequences of health influencers is that they could end up discouraging consumers from seeking guidance from qualified healthcare professionals. Influencers may present themselves as experts, leading followers to believe that their advice is a sufficient substitute for medical or nutritional expertise.

This can delay the diagnosis and treatment of health issues, as well as hinder individuals from receiving the personalized care they truly need.

Feeding on the vulnerable

The most vulnerable populations that can fall prey to such advice, are the ones that may need the most professional help. Cohorts of young people, inexperienced but looking to try and get that perfect body, to people with chronic health conditions, and people suffering from mental health may be particularly susceptible to such persuasive powers. Caregivers too may fall prey to such tactics in looking out for solutions that sound promising.

 Keeping these issues in mind, the Department of Consumer Affairs, in consultation with ASCI and other stakeholders, released its guidelines a few weeks ago requiring health influencers to add clear disclosures. ASCI too updated its guidelines requiring health and financial influencers to endorse such products only if they were qualified to so do. For posts related to health and nutrition, an influencer must have relevant qualifications such as a medical degree, or be a certified nurse, nutritionist, dietician, physiotherapist, psychologist, etc. depending on the specific advice being given. The influencer must disclose such qualifications and registration and certification details prominently so that consumers can be confident that the advice they receive is from a qualified expert.

These guidelines are expected to bring such promotions by unqualified influencers under control.

Staying healthy, staying wise

In the era of social media and digital connectivity, consumer vulnerability to health influencers' sway is a real concern. To protect our well-being, we must prioritize sound scientific advice over sensationalized trends and remember that genuine health and wellness are never one-size-fits-all. After all, our health is too precious to entrust to the unqualified.

Influencers must also remember to embrace their power with humility. Their words carry weight, and their advice can shape lives. If they fail to consider the impact of their influence on the vulnerable masses, it may soon be game over for them too. Influencing the right way will showcase their talent and contributions to the advertising community while safeguarding the health and rights of their own audiences, the consumer.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of The Advertising Standards Council of India.

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