Written evidence submitted by Girlguiding
6 May 2021
Girlguiding’s response to the influencer culture inquiry
1.1. As the leading charity for girls and young women in the UK, our submission to this inquiry is focused on the impact that influencer culture can have on girls and young women. At Girlguiding, we recognise that influencers on social media can be positive role models for girls and young women, however, there are aspects of influencer culture that can be harmful, especially where it contributes towards appearance pressures and gender stereotypes. We believe more should be done to tackle the relentless appearance pressures, and the unrealistic ideals that girls are often bombarded with online.
1.2. In this submission, we recommend the following: influencers recognise the impact their posts can have on young people’s wellbeing; more education available to children and young people on influencers; a consistent and clear way influencers advertise online; plastic surgery filters to be removed across all platforms; greater restrictions on the promotion and sale of diet products to children and young people (under 18); more information on how to submit complaints about influencers; the government, social media companies and the ASA to work together to eliminate body-image related harms; better age-verification controls for social media; the Online Harms legislation should take into account the experiences of girls and young women on social media; less value -be put on girls’ and young women’s appearance; and a cross-government strategy on children and young people’s mental health.
2.1. In this submission we reference the Girls’ Attitudes Survey, our annual research project into the lives of girls and young women. It builds a comprehensive picture of the emerging needs, issues and priorities of girls and young women today. The survey provides a snapshot of the views of over 2,000 girls and young women from across the UK aged 7 to 21, within and outside Girlguiding. Since 2009, we have covered a range of issues affecting girls from education, wellbeing, aspirations, social action, and safety on- and off-line.
2.2. During the covid-19 lockdowns we carried out two surveys with girls and young women aged 4 to 18. Our first survey published in May 2020 shows how girls and young women were affected by the pandemic, and our second survey which took place in February 2021 shows girls’ and young women’s hopes and fears for the future following the pandemic.
2.3. We’ve also made reference to the Monitor Report 2021 by CHIDLWISE. This is the 27th yearly report showing children’s media consumption using a sample of 2000 aged 5 to 16 across the UK.
2.4. We use anecdotal experiences from our Advocate panel and British Youth Council Delegates, our youth panels consisting of young Girlguiding members aged 14 to 25, as well as reference an audit of adverts that they carried out from May 2019 to January 2020. This audit was a result of the rules introduced by the Advertising Standards Authority which stated that adverts should not include harmful gender stereotypes. They reviewed adverts both before the rule came into place (May-June 2019), and 6 months after (December 2019-January 2020). The aim of the review was to assess and compare the state of harmful gender stereotypes in advertising, evaluate whether the rule had made any improvements and understand the impact these adverts had on young women.
3.1. How would you define ‘influencers’ and ‘influencer culture’? Is this a new phenomenon?
3.1.1. Influencers and influencer culture is not a new phenomenon. In our 2016 Girls’ Attitudes Survey, 66% of girls and young women aged 11-21 said they compared themselves to celebrities. An addition 44% aged 11-21 thought that one of the main causes of stress among girls is the pressure to look like a celebrity (2018 survey). However, social media has meant that influencers are much more present in society. Social media has also made it easier for people to become influencers. Whereas previously it was only those with celebrity status who were regarded influencers, as opposed to those with a large number of followers or subscribers.
3.1.2. According to CHILDWISE, children’s and young people’s access to the internet has been increasing each year, with 97% aged 7-16 saying they have internet access. The group most likely to access the internet are girls aged 15 to 16. The amount of time children spend online is also increasing, with children aged 7-16 spending on average 3.8 hours a day online, compared to 3.4. hours last year. The largest increase is among those aged 11 to 12 who now spend on average 4.2 hours online a day compared to 3.3 hours last year. In addition to this, 73% of children aged 5 to 16 now have their own mobile phone compared to 69% last year. This has also meant it’s now easier for children to access the internet when they’re out and about, with 44% of them doing so. This means that children’s exposure to influencers and online advertising is increasing as a result, and the implications of this should be considered.
3.1.3. Our research with girls during the first covid-19 lockdown revealed that girls and young women have been spending more time on social media during lockdown, with 85% of girls aged 15-18 saying this. Many have kept connected this way with 78% saying they’ve used new apps and games to communicate with friends and family. But with increased time online, they’ve faced increased pressures. For example, 26% said they felt pressured to lose weight or exercise. And our most recent survey following the latest lockdown showed that 25% of girls and young women aged 15 to 18 said they felt under more pressure to look a certain way.
‘I think online ads are more invasive due to the nature of the relationship between young women and their phones. My social media is where I go for my role models, for inspiration and for empowerment so when it’s infiltrated by damaging stereotypes or products such as weight loss pills, it leads me to doubt myself and feel bad about my body. As a generation we use our phones all the time so are more likely to be exposed to these harmful ads’ – Grace, 16, Girlguiding British Youth Council delegate
3.2. Has ‘influencing’ impacted popular culture? If so, how has society and/or culture changed because of this side of social media?
3.2.1. Girls and young women tell us that the narrow ways in which women are represented in the media, including on social media through influencers, negatively impacts their confidence, wellbeing and body image. For example, reinforcing unrealistic beauty ideals, the sexual objectification of girls and women, and normalising unequal social and professional roles of women and men. With children and young people’s access to the internet increasing each year, it’s important to understand the impact this can have on them and their wellbeing. And in particular the gendered pressures that girls and young women face.
3.2.2. Body image is a serious issue for many girls and young women that can limit their lives and opportunities. From a young age, girls say they don’t feel happy with how they look and can feel embarrassed and ashamed of their appearance. In 2016 our Girls’ Attitudes Survey showed that 53% aged 7 to 10 and 72% aged 11 to 16 feel the need to be perfect. Almost half (47%) aged 11 to 21 said the way they look holds them back most of the time. 38% aged 7 to 10 and 77% aged 11 to 16 said they don’t feel pretty enough. In addition, 40% of girls aged 7 to 10 said they feel like they should lose weight. Our 2018 survey with girls aged 11 to 21 showed:
‘Many girls feel like if they don't have the Love Island body, they aren't worthy’ - Alice, 16, Girlguiding Advocate
3.2.3 Our research shows that the media, including social media, contributes towards the pressures girls and young women face around their appearance. In our 2018 Girls’ Attitudes Survey, 79% of girls aged 11 to 21 said there’s too much discussion about women’s body shape in the media. 52% of girls and young women aged 11 to 21 said they sometimes feel ashamed of the way they look because they don’t look like the girls and women in the media. And a similar number (51%) said they’d like to look more like the pictures of girls and women they see in the media. The 2017 survey showed almost half (47%) of girls and young women aged 11 to 21 had seen stereotypical images of men and women in the media in the past week that made them feel less confident.
3.2.4 Our Girls’ Attitudes Survey shows that girls believe the media reinforces the message that women and girls’ value is correlated to their appearance and that it often relies on sexist and stereotypical images of women that reinforce the idea that women’s bodies exist only to be looked at, to sell products and to entertain through sexualisation and objectification. And that they must look ‘attractive’ using stereotypical ideas of beauty. The gendered stereotypes used from a young age that value girls on their appearance over what they do, for example, being complimented for ‘looking pretty’ whereas boys may be complemented on for ‘being strong’ or ‘brave’. Messages they get from the media also confirm this alongside an ‘ideal body’ type or image that they should aspire to. The media they consume churns out image after image of how women should look. Alongside products they are told they need to help them achieve this such as weight loss products and cosmetic procedures.
3.2.5 As part of this, social media and influencers have also had an impact on girls and young women. Our research shows that influencers can promote unrealistic beauty ideals, and unattainable lifestyles which make girls and young women feel pressured to be ‘perfect’. Our 2020 Girls’ Attitudes Survey, 71% of girls aged 11 to 21 think the media and influencers on social media need to do more to stop reinforcing gender stereotypes. In addition to this our 2018 Girls’ Attitudes Survey with girls and young women aged 11 to 21 showed that 53% aged 11-21 think bloggers and YouTubers create the idea of being perfect that is unrealistic and unachievable. And 22% have tried a diet after hearing about a celebrity using it.
‘Influencers have had a positive impact for companies in terms of creating a quick and easy marketing strategy with a wide reach. However, I think they have overall had a negative impact on society by further installing this idea of a “perfect body” image into girls and young women from a young age, whilst also giving an impression that you aren’t successful unless you have a nice house and nice car in your early 20s. This is not realistic at all!’ – Phoebe, 20, Girlguiding Advocate
3.2.6 The use of filters, airbrushing and editing images is normalised in influencer culture. Constantly seeing images and videos of influencers with ‘flawless skin’ or a ‘perfect body’ can make girls and young women want to change the way they look. Our 2019 Girls’ Attitudes Survey showed 71% of girls and young women aged 11 to 21 filter the pictures they post on social media most of the time or sometimes. Sometimes this can be for fun, but our 2020 survey shows that 48% of girls and young women aged 11 to 21 said they regularly use apps or filters to make photos of themselves look better online. And in 2018, almost a third of girls and young women aged 11 to 21 say they would consider cosmetic procedures such as Botox or lip fillers (30%) and cosmetic surgery (29%).
3.2.7 Our research reveals the extent to which girls are exposed to advertising content that implies women and girls have a limited and particular role to play in society, which influencer culture contributes to. In 2017, 42% aged 11-21 said they’d seen adverts in the past week that portrayed women in a way that they thought was sexist. In addition to this, in the audit of ads our youth panels carried out, many said they felt sad, uncomfortable, self-conscious and inadequate when they saw images they felt were harmful to their body image. Girls also feel there needs to be more realistic and diverse in the representation of women in adverts:
‘Every day I scroll through Instagram and see adverts of the same bodies and shapes from brands. However, the worst are ones that influencers post, as they enforce a stereotype of the same ideal body for a specific brand or product. Each advert may not be 'outrageous' enough to be banned, yet it can reinforce a negative view on your own body as you see the 'perfect' images constantly’ – Henrietta , 16, Girlguiding Advocate
3.2.8 The trend in girl’s mental health and happiness in the UK has been in decline for the past decade. This is clear in our research, and in others. One of the main causes for girl’s unhappiness is related to body image anxiety and appearance pressures. This is a particularly significant for girls in the UK and not seen across all comparable nations. Low body confidence limits young people’s lives and opportunities. In our 2018 Girls’ Attitudes Survey, 59% of girls and young women aged 11 to 21 said one of the main causes of stress among girls is the pressure from social media. And our 2020 survey shows that two out of five (39%) girls and young women aged 11 to 21 said they feel upset they can’t look the way they do online. The pressures that society puts on girls’ and young women’s appearance has detrimental effects, and it needs to be recognised that influencer culture is contributing to this.
‘It got to the point where I didn’t want to leave the house or meet anyone’ - Girl, 11 to 16, Girls’ Attitudes Survey
3.2.9 These social expectations and norms can also lead to appearance-based bullying. Our 2019 survey showed that 25% of girls aged 7 to 10 and 44% aged 11 to 21 have been bullied about how they look. In 2018, 50% of girls aged 7 to 10 and 36% aged 11 to 16 were worried about being bullied online. Almost half of girls (47%) aged 11 to 21 had unkind things said about them on social media. A further 25% aged 11 to 21 had experienced cyber-bullying, rising to 41% for those identifying as LGBTQ+. And 22% aged 11 to 21 had embarrassing photos of themselves sent to other people at school, college or university.
‘Not being happy with how I look makes me feel sad and worried and like I might be bullied’ - Girl, 7 to 10, Girls’ Attitudes Survey
3.2.10 Girls believe the focus on theirs and women’s appearance effects their future opportunities. 42% aged 11 to 21 think to be successful, women have to be attractive as well as good at what they do, whereas for men, it doesn’t matter what they look like (2016 survey). And 54% aged 7 to 10 think paying more attention to women’s clothes than what they do means girls and women are treated less fairly than boys and men (2018 survey).
3.2.11 We believe body image is an equalities issue – as girls who are Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic, disabled or LGBTQ+ feel the exclusion and marginalisation more acutely in terms of the world that is represented back to them. And it holds people back from being themselves and taking part in public life fully. We have collated quotes from our youth panels to help illustrate the diverse and intersectional experiences when it comes to the expectations and pressures they face around how they should look.
‘The media's idea of a 'perfect' body has never considered the daily struggles girls and young women face surrounding disability, race, sex and sexuality. No one girl is the same. For many years, those who consider themselves to be 'different' have tried to alter their appearance to fit this mediated image of what their body should look like’ - Phoebe, 20, Girlguiding Advocate
‘My darker complexion and African features, full lips, broad nose and afro hair, are all clear indicators that I am on the far end of meeting the European set beauty standards of this country. I have been deemed unattractive, manly and ugly. Not only is there a lack of black people and women in the media but a lack of black women. Because of my treatment at school and what I saw around me, I hated myself and resorted to skin bleaching and straightening my hair to “rectify” the “problem”.’ – Jemmar, 20, Girlguiding British Youth Council Delegate
3.3 Is it right that influencers are predominantly associated with advertising and consumerism, and if not, what other roles to influencers fulfil online?
3.3.3 Advertising is only one aspect of influencer culture. It must be recognised that there are a wide range of influencers who are associated with different topics. For example, there are individuals who could be classed as influencers within the ‘body positivity’ movement, or are seen as role models for girls and young women. Not all influencers are as involved with advertising as much as others. But it must be noted that influencers themselves are ‘advertising’ and ‘endorsing’ particular brands, attitudes or lifestyles whether intentional or not. Therefore, influencers need to recognise and be mindful of the content that they post, especially those who have a large following of girls and young women who look up to them.
‘I think influencers are definitely mostly associated with advertising, but there are also a branch of more positive influencers who aim to educate their following on certain issues. For example, Dr Alex George from Love Island has used his following in a positive way to encourage young people to talk about their mental health, whilst also lobbying the government for change in this field.’ – Phoebe, 20, Girlguiding Advocate
‘It's interesting that influencers who seek to educate their audiences on 'taboo' topics such as periods or sex education have their posts demonetized. However, those who choose to promote harmful products such as skinny teas are able to earn thousands of pounds from brand deals. The government must do more to help regulate and promote the right content to girls and young women’ - Phoebe, 20, Girlguiding Advocate
‘It was only recently, after seeing body positive influencers, that I realised what bloating actually is and how it’s normal - before I would have thought about it negatively and that I’d suddenly gained weight but I’m fact it’s simply my body processing food!’ - Henrietta, 16, Girlguiding Advocate
3.4 How are tech companies encouraging or disrupting the activities of influencing?
3.4.3 We believe that tech companies have a responsibility to ensure that the influencers on their platforms are advertising in a clear and concise way, ensuring that the ads are not perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes or contributing to harmful appearance pressures. We would like to see these included into the duty of care as part of the Online Harms legislation.
3.4.4 We believe Ofcom in its role as the new regulator should ensure social media sites include policies to tackle body image pressures and enable greater diversity when it comes to representation. We believe the new regulator should engage girls and young women in the development and enforcement of the new duty of care to ensure its effective implementation including empowering them to understand its purpose and report concerns.
3.5 How aware are users of the arrangements between influencers and advertisers? Should policymakers, tech companies and influencers and advertisers themselves do more to ensure these arrangements are transparent?
3.5.3 We believe that the arrangements between influencers and advertisers could be clearer, and that policymakers, tech companies, influencers and advertisers need to work together to make sure these arrangements are transparent. At present it’s not always clear when an influencer is advertising or promoting a product. We recommend that there’s a consistent way in which influencers advertise online, and for these advertisements to be labelled more explicitly, as at present they’re not always distinguishable from other posts online. We’re pleased to see that the ASA are protecting children and young people by addressing complaints regarding the disclosure of influencers’ ads.
3.5.4 We believe that the Online Harms legislation is an opportunity to address the harms caused by influencers and their advertisements that have been mentioned. Our 2020 Girls’ Attitudes Survey shows over two thirds (68%) of girls and young women aged 11 to 21 support legislation that would protect them from seeing advertisements for diet products and weight-loss clubs under the age of 18. In the 2017 survey, 95% aged 11 to 21 want the advertising industry to show more positive and diverse representations of girls and women.
‘There should be individuals employed by social media to check influencers’ posts before they are uploaded, whilst providing these influencers and companies paying them to promote their products with additional guidance on how to display advertisements clearly and effectively.’ – Phoebe, 20, Girlguiding Advocate,
‘The most problematic adverts are those that are subtle, and done through influencers. It’s harder, sometimes impossible, to tell if their posts are adverts, making audiences more susceptible to what they are presenting. Influencer ads are more realistic, with no flashy icons or text on the image, which makes people like me constantly be subtly reminded about the ideal body. Since they’re harder to identify as ads they’re more able to be seen as realistic whilst implicitly and constantly reminding you about the 'ideal' body’. Influencers should have to label part of their image as an 'advert' not just in the caption section’ – Henrietta, 16, Girlguiding Advocate
‘I think influencers on social media have changed the nature of adverts as they directly target their followers. The labelling of these posts as adverts is ineffective as they are scattered among other posts and it’s difficult to spot the change’ – Kirsty,18, Girlguiding British Youth Council Delegate
‘When thinking about their ads, companies should think about what thoughts their content provokes and what kind of messages it sends to young and vulnerable people” – Grace, 16, Girlguiding British Youth Council Delegate
4.1. Influencers need to recognise the impact their posts can have on young people’s wellbeing. We’d like to see influencers understand and be more mindful of the impact their content can have on their audiences, especially those that have a large following of young people on social media. They should bear in mind that children under the age of 13 are accessing the internet, whether they are intended for them or not, and therefore we believe they do have a responsibility to make sure their content isn’t harmful for girls and young women by not promoting harmful products such as weight-loss pills, and being transparent when their images are edited.
4.2. There should be more education available to children and young people on influencers. We believe that there should be a larger focus on influencers in media literacy so that children and young people for more able to critically engage with influencer content online, and recognise that what they see on social media isn’t real – especially where influencers are being paid for promoting and advertising. To help with this social media sites should clearly and explicitly indicate that the images on their platforms contain pictures that have been altered and are not real. Girlguiding gives girls and young women the skills and confidence to navigate the pressures they face on a daily basis through our programme and we want to see this delivered in other areas including schools – where it’s also important they create a positive, supportive environment where everyone feel confident to be themselves.
4.3. There should be a consistent and clear way influencers advertise online. These advertisements should be labelled more explicitly, as at present they’re not always distinguishable from other posts online. We would like to see more effective regulations to ensure children and young people are better protected from the harm that is being caused by pressures and images that create widespread body image concerns – on and offline and across different media.
4.4. Plastic surgery filters should be removed across all platforms. Instagram announced last year they’d remove all plastic surgery filters – and whilst this hasn’t been wholly successful as far as we understand, this is a step in the right direction and it would be great to see other platforms used by millions of children and young people do the same.
4.5. There should be greater restrictions on the promotion and sale of diet products to children and young people (under 18). We would like to see greater restrictions on the promotion and sale of diet products to children and young people (under 18) by not showing them before the watershed, on public billboards or on social media. We believe social media sites should have clearer complaints procedures specifically linked to diet products and their promotion of an unrealistic body image so that young people can report when they feel pressured to change their appearance as a result of these advertisements.
4.6. There should be more information on how to submit complaints about influencers. Children and young people may not be aware on how to report an influencer’s ad to the ASA. We believe there should be clearer complaints procedures specifically linked to the promotion of an unrealistic body image and that children and young people are supported to know how to easily report this. Information on how to do this should be made accessible and the process should be simple.
4.7. The government, social media companies and the ASA need to work together to eliminate body-image related harms online. When it comes on online advertising in particular, we believe more needs to be done to regulate this. We’re pleased to see the work that the ASA are doing to protect children and young people from ads that are harmful in terms of body image. We encourage the government, social media companies and the new online regulator to work closely with the ASA to tackle this issue.
4.8. Better age-verification controls for social media. This would also help to address the harmful content including advertisements children see. Nearly all (91%) of girls and young women think there should be age limits on social media. And half think there should be better checks to ensure people are old enough to use social media.
4.9. The Online Harms legislation should take into account the experiences of girls and young women on social media. The Online Harms White Paper provides an important opportunity to address the harm girls and young women face online. This must include the widespread and devastating harm caused by appearance pressures and body image issues online. We want to see the new duty of care include a definition of harm that results from appearance pressures and body image issues including bullying around appearance, harmful advertising around beauty, fitness and weight loss. We would like to see Ofcom as the new regulator work with social media sites to develop policies that tackle body image pressures and harms.
4.10. Less value should be put on girls’ and young women’s appearance. We want to see a change in society in terms of our culture that currently values women for how they look instead of being celebrated for who they are and what they can achieve. We know this is important as girls grow up and see how women are represented and what is excepted of them. In addition, it’s important for girls to see women represented in their diversity – both in terms of how they look, but also what they can do. And the media, including influencers could do more to show this.
4.11. There should be a cross-government strategy on children and young people’s mental health. Along with YoungMinds and many other organisations, we would like there to be a cross-government strategy on children and young people’s mental health – and we believe body image and the experiences of different groups of children and young people, should be central to this.
5.1. Our programme delivers fun and varied range of activities for girls from Rainbows (4-7) to Rangers (14-18). As part of our programme girls can take part in the following activities:
5.2. In March 2020 we launched Adventures At Home, a range of activities online to help children, parents and carers find simple ways to create fun, adventure and boost wellbeing during the current crisis.
5.3. Future Girl is our five-year plan to help our girls and volunteers make the changes they want to see in the world. In 2018, over 76,000 girls and 16,000 leaders told us what topics they cared about. Through the Future Girl topics, our members of all ages will explore and act together on the things they really care about. Our topic Self Believers, which aims to improve girls wellbeing. A core part of doing this is by addressing the pressures girls face around how they look.
5.4. Our Advocate panel gives girls a platform to use their voices and seek change at the highest levels. Advocates are a group of 18 Girlguiding members aged 14 to 25 who lead the direction of Girlguiding's advocacy and research. They act as media spokespeople for Girlguiding and speak at events. They are able to speak with decision makers including politicians about our evidence and what girls would like to see change.
5.5. Our British Youth Council (BYC) delegation comprises of 10 members - including the Chair - aged between 14 and 25 from across the UK. Delegates learn how power and politics work and how they can use their voices and connect their views with other young people to create positive change.
6.1. Girlguiding is the leading charity for girls and young women in the UK. Thanks to the dedication and support of our amazing volunteers, we are active in every part of the UK, giving girls and young women a space where they can be themselves, have fun, build brilliant friendships, gain valuable life skills and make a positive difference to their lives and their communities. We build girls’ confidence and raise their aspirations. We give them the chance to discover their full potential and encourage them to be a powerful force for good. We give them a space to have fun. We run Rainbows (4–7 years), Brownies (7–10 years), Guides (10–14 years) and Rangers (14–18 years). Registered Charity No. 306016.