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Fitness Influencers and the Unseen Market of Teenage Exploitation 

Being trapped inside the house for months during the COVID-19 lockdowns gave everyone new options for how to spend their newfound free time: one could turn to binge-watching a new Netflix series, picking up a new hobby, or for many, attempting a new workout regimen. Thanks to social media, during quarantine, it became a trend to dedicate those extra hours every day to “exercise”. Noting this trend, fitness influencers (individuals who publish engaging content to their sizable audiences) capitalized on the opportunity to promote their workout routines, diets, merchandise, and paid services. Social media platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram promoted their fitness content creators heavily during this period. Such social networks heavily promoted videos of perfectly chiseled men and women on everyone’s feed, inspiring viewers to take part in countless fitness challenges and routines. Although these influencers assisted many individuals in reaching their goals—there was a nefarious undertone to their work. This abundant fitness culture catalyzed social media users, particularly young women, resorting to unhealthy measures to conform to unrealistic fitness expectations. This spike in the popularity of “FitTok” (a slang term for Fitness TikTok) and “Fitspo” (a slang term for fitness inspiration) during lockdowns made young people suffer at the expense of the millions of dollars social media companies and their fitness influencers raked in. 

Isolation during COVID-19 increased sensitivity and obsession regarding body image, giving individuals some sort of control over their lives in a time when they had none. Teens and young people seeking information on how to improve their physical health and appearances turned to the internet, only to find troves of videos and pictures that promote toxic “Fitspo.”  According to the National Library of Medicine, fitness content increased on YouTube more than five-fold during 2020. Specifically, young women were thirteen times more likely to go in search of this content in comparison to men. As teens were trapped inside, their time spent on screens and social media increased by almost two hours a day on average. While social media platforms facilitated safe communication between family and friends during the pandemic, the acute uptick in screen time combined with heightened anxiety and misinformation regarding weight loss fostered an overall rise in body negativity. 

Social media influencers and companies wasted no time exploiting the insecurities of young people during the pandemic by marketing their products to struggling teens. Adolescents’ timelines on varying social media platforms were overwhelmed with the abs of fitness influencers, most notably Chloe Ting, who marketed quick 10-15 minute abdominal workouts to young people looking for shortcuts to getting in shape. Participating in such quick-fix videos may help in overall weight loss but cannot spot-fix certain parts of one’s body, like the abs. Videos like Ting’s may contain helpful exercises to increase stamina and assist in weight loss, but claiming the regimens will give you abs in two weeks is misleading and develops false conceptions of exercise. 

While there are minimal studies that analyze the effects of fitness influencers on youth during the pandemic, the existing empirical studies and plethora of anecdotal evidence note that the effects were detrimental to the health and body image of teens. On TikTok, influencers with no expertise heavily glorify restrictive eating as a legitimate means to achieving weight loss. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of the fitness influencers on social media have promoted advice that has no sound evidence or merit, making it no shock that teens absorbing this information find themselves in health dilemmas. According to a study by the Tech Transparency Project, Facebook marketed weight-loss products to teens as young as 13 in both the US and Australia. Adolescents that use weight loss products such as over-the-counter diet pills are four times more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. This content promoted to young teens is severely detrimental by providing false information on how to “get fit” with products that cannot guarantee any success. 

During the pandemic, demand for eating disorder treatment from adolescents increased by 300%at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. While some of these cases may have not been a direct result of Fitspo, the problematic and deceitful nature of fitness culture on social media undoubtedly affected the number of adolescents in treatment. Medical expert Dr. Lizzy Pope of the University of Vermont claims that the deceitful medical information promoted by TikTok influencers points users toward an eating disorder. Furthermore, epidemiologist S. Bryn Austin, a professor at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health and researcher at the Boston Children’s Hospital, stated that teens impulsively compare their bodies to others online, leading to spirals of mental health and body image. Social media companies and influencers are desperate to market their products to anyone—so much so that they are willing to prey on the insecurities of teens. Promoting dangerous supplementals and fake advice to teens to achieve an unattainable body is a prime example of the consequences of a profit-incentive economic model. 

While it may appear that influencers created these videos out of the kindness of their hearts by providing free and accessible workout tutorials online, they had quite an incentive. During 2020, Chloe Ting gained nearly eleven million subscribers from February to July of 2020, and a net worth of nearly 9.5 million dollars. Fitness influencers on Instagram can make roughly 72 thousand dollars per post. Ting and her fellow fitness influencers generate this lofty profit from the sale of their health products and ad revenue. Social media platforms receive revenue from the work of these influencers, providing another incentive for fitness content to be prevalent amongst young people’s timelines.

This dilemma illustrates the commodification of fitness and mental illness, whether the content creators are aware or not. Before the pandemic, fitness influencers existed but on a smaller scale. The pandemic fostered the growth of the fitness market on social media, to the point where it became an extremely lucrative business for creators. The reasons why this market skyrocketed during the pandemic produce many of the ethical paradigms. While people traded in their gym memberships for online services during the pandemic, this was not the sole reason for the spike in revenue and views across social media platforms. Many of these problematic fitness influencers that took off during the pandemic were catering their videos to a younger audience, with the average influenced age ranging from 16-23 years old. This is what poses the largest issue: easily influenced young people during a time of already heightened social media usage and anxiety, being exploited by their desire to achieve the unachievable, fit body. 

Influencers—regardless of knowledge about the effects on youth from misinformation on dieting and exercise—are accountable for the distress plaguing adolescents that consumed their content. The mere fact that these influencers would rather not think about the detrimental, albeit unintended, consequences of their content to make a quick buck demonstrates the predatory nature of a profit-driven economy. Producers of a commodity, whether it be fitness content or weight-loss pills, are willing to put moral conflicts in their peripheral so long that they see a profit. Social media provides yet another marketplace for commerce to be done, and this sphere has yet to see sufficient regulation or ethical opposition from institutions with the agency to make change.

Featured Image Source: Sirona Therapy

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