Do brands need to do more to recognise the growing unease of the mental health impact of social media amongst consumers?

We asked industry leaders how to navigate the pitfalls of social media, one of marketing’s most powerful tools

Jeevan Georgina Hammond

Editorial Assistant Creativebrief


From the rise of the smartphone free childhood movement, to the growing shift towards real life experiences, the impact of social media on mental health is moving up the marketing agenda.

There is no question that social media is a highly popular and effective tool for marketing, particularly when it comes to connecting with Gen Z and Gen Alpha or engaging with popular culture. According to the Pew Research Centre, Teens, ‘Social Media and Technology 2023’ report, 71% of teens use YouTube daily, and 58% use TikTok daily.

The likes of Marc Jacobs have reaped the rewards of cultural firepower of TikTok, calling on creators, @bellahadid039 (a comedian), @Beabadoobee (a musician), and @Sylvaniandrama (a comedy sketch account) to help promote its Spring and Summer 2024 collections. Creating platform nascent content allows brands to play in culture maximising on popular trends and achieving organic reach.

Yet, while social media remains largely unregulated, last year, 2023, United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, said that there was growing evidence of social media causing harm to the mental health of young people. Mobile network, EE, demonstrated the difficulty of growing up with phones in a campaign by Saatchi & Saatchi.

Children are being influenced to buy anti-ageing, luxury skin care that they don’t need, while filters are impacting young girl’s self-esteem, and there are safeguarding issues that advertising on the internet poses.

At LEAD 2024, Lord Michael Grade, Chair of Ofcom urged the industry to play its part in building a safer online world and embrace the The Online Safety Act. “We must make trust and safety a priority, and get ahead of harm, rather than react to crisis,” he said.

While social media can be used as a highly effective marketing tool, the industry also has a responsibility to recognise and respond to the impact of social media on children’s mental health. With this in mind we asked industry leaders if brands should do more to recognise the growing unease of the mental health impact of social media amongst consumers?’.

Callum Ritchie

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Social Strategist


Yes, most brands do need to do more, but this doesn’t start on social media. In the UK, we are operating in a mental health epidemic, and it is everyone’s responsibility to be more compassionate to each other. For both individuals and brands, it all starts with holistic values and practices. This is essential for any use of social media to be authentic, and some brands will have more to say in that space than others because of their business purpose. Having said that, there are basic considerations and responsibilities that brands must consider, for example, not working with creators or following trends that objectively have a negative impact in this space. Ultimately, the real responsibility falls on the platforms, they simply aren’t doing enough to protect their users. Brands are just one piece of the puzzle, while brands can have measures in place to ensure best practices on social in regard to mental health, platforms are allowing other creators outside of brands control to wreak havoc on their platforms.

Tom Sneddon

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Managing Partner

Supernova (part of Atomic London)

Social media has been part of our lives for two decades now, and the narrative around its impact on mental health and body image has never been louder.

According to research from Shortlist last year, over half (53%) of UK Gen Z consumers think brands advocating for better mental health “do it for show”. But whilst the majority of young consumers do not believe that brands speaking up on the issue are sincere, over two-thirds (67%) do believe that brands ought to care about mental health.

This represents a significant challenge for brands. Social media plays an increasingly impactful and effective means of communication with modern audiences. But it is also an environment where cultural habits, human identity and respect are continually being challenged.

Ultimately, I think brands need to truly adopt an audience centric point of view – on the basis that brand growth, engagement and salience come from community respect, value and responsibility. But as with all social values, mental health is not a campaign or a moment in time. True impact and responsibility mean ensuring that it sits as a fundamental behaviour and pillar all year long - for customers and staff.

Chris Woodward

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CTI Digital

Brands have two rules they need to follow. Firstly, they need to comply with the law and, secondly, they should act in a way that is appropriate for their brand by following their own guidelines and principles.

Beyond that, all is fair game.

Where it becomes more ambiguous is that brands don’t apply these principles consistently. If it complies with the law (more or less) and fits with their brand guidelines, it’s game on. However, often brands will then contradict this with empty virtue signalling on topics such as mental health.

Worse still, some brands take very politicised stances on some topics. For example, when Elon Musk took over Twitter, various brands elected to stop advertising on the platform. Broadly, this was because they objected to Elon’s strong views on free speech. That wasn’t the reason cited of course, rather brands made various spurious claims that it would affect mental health. In fact, this was an example of brands following a leftist ideology, which is the prevailing narrative of our times.

Brands often say one thing, but do another. Given the pervasive nature of social media, there is a very strong argument for more regulation. Not to curtail free speech, but to add a level of protection. Brands need to have curbs on the extent to which they can target consumers, and the platforms need to take much more responsibility for how they build in protection from harmful content. Mark Zuckerberg’s weak apology to the parents of dead children when he appeared in front of the Senate Committee shows how low down the agenda protecting children is for the platforms. Too little, too late.

You can’t communicate your way out of something you have behaved yourself into. The platforms and brands keep proving this. It’s therefore time for tighter regulation.

Martin Severs

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Head of Strategy

Collaborate Global

It really goes without saying that we should all take the growing signs seriously both personally and professionally.  We’ve always believed that brands should only be active in areas where they have true permission or reason to belong – there are few things more jarring than seeing a brand inappropriately piggy-back onto a cause whether that’s green-washing, pink-washing or Kendal Jenner’s infamous carbonated world peace initiative.

We’d add two important things that Collaborate has learned and applies:

  1. The portrayal of false and unrealistic ideals is a big part of the negative mental health impact, and we know that the more authentic and relatable social media and influencers, the more resonant the message. Whether that’s using down to earth female mechanics for our eBay activations or including true human behaviour insights into our Colgate experiences. 
  2. As many have pointed out recently, brands are increasingly investing in real live experiences (ref. the recent Bellwether report) – as friction free digital becomes the norm. We’re all looking for greater engagement and depth. Giving people a chance to escape the digital world is as important for consumers as it is for brands. When done right – we’d argue that five minutes engagement IRL is far more engaging and rewarding than five seconds of doom scrolling digital content.   

Crucially, for our activation work, both considerations impact the customer journeys we design. We're always striving to make an experience as unique and engaging as possible - which by nature often precludes a sole focus on social media.

Christianne Hamilton

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Head of Strategy

Spring Studios

Social media can be good for you - as a portal for passions and connectivity, but it can also be damaging to youth. The algorithm is a perpetual guide to our interests and obsessions, both good and bad. ‘Bad’ can manifest in decline in self-esteem, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders, amongst other things. According to Harvard’s School of Public Health eating disorder expert Amanda Raffoul, the more girls are on social media, the more likely they are to have poor body image. We owe it to humanity and especially to youth of every ethnicity and gender to help them better navigate it all.

Maybe an industry group and accreditation for brands on social would help, but no need to wait. Brands have an easy-to-flex starting point called brand values. What are they? How do they activate them?  When I see a women-focused brand that stands for wellness of body and mind, reposting UGC of women openly objectifying themselves in a way that has nothing to do with the wellness brand other than wearing its kit, it makes me question whom they are serving.

Another way for brands to get involved is doing what they always do – thinking about the next generation customer: How can you help them navigate what they’re encountering right now? If you’re a skincare brand witnessing 12 step routines for 12-year-olds on TikTok, it’s an opportunity to get involved. Anti-ageing is an unhealthy obsession for many teens. So why not have an expert derm influencer share her expertise to help them make the right decisions.

Ultimately, trends and influences drive social, and brands should be committed to advocating for the positives and fighting the negative forces that tear us apart. Maybe this is the dawn of a new contract between brand and platform.

Katie Hunter

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Co-Founder & Managing Partner

Wonderhood Makers

There’s a big difference between recognition and action within the complexities, impacts and – ultimately – risks of social media, amongst young consumers.

It’s the responsibility of brands to recognise the growing nervousness around the potential damage of social media content. Anyone sharing content has a duty of care to their audience, ensuring that what they are sharing is as safe as it is creative.

There are a couple of misconceptions that possibly contribute to a reluctance to really face into this challenge. Firstly, a nervousness that acknowledgement means direct action, which can be a scary prospect for brands. We’ve seen this with questions around what to do with X, and how content you produce could indirectly contribute to a mele of harmful behaviours that will impact viewers. Does this mean you pull all content from a platform? Should you be counteracting negativity with a different style of creative? Being attune to the conversations and concerns is important, but it’s equally important to be able to judge your content with perspective and pragmatism.

Secondly, the size of the issue can be paralysing. As the platforms & audiences grow, the effects and implications will also cultivate. But ignoring them won’t make them go away or remove the value in understanding them. When it comes to existing on social media, knowledge is power. We will only succeed in creating exciting work by getting under the skin of how consumers exist there, outside of brands and beyond the advertising: use social listening and consumer engagement teams to follow the conversations and get a hold on the wider context. Their opinions are not only valid but probably accurate.

Ultimately, this is an exciting time for content creativity, and the more ahead of it we are, the more successful we’ll be in contributing positively and shifting these perceptions.

Luke Taylor

Luke Taylor, head of social at McCann Content Studios, McCann Manchester.jpg

Head of Social, McCann Content Studios

McCann Manchester

Any successful brand, or influencer, needs to understand its audience and the platforms they’re using – so the short answer is yes. 

Excessive social media use can be associated with self-esteem issues and in the wrong hands the sheer scale of connectivity can enable the spread of negativity and misinformation. Brands need to be aware of this, whether they consider it their role or not, because getting it wrong can also have big consequences for brands' reputation.

Although the platforms themselves are the one’s accountable, brands have significant leverage to create positive change. Meta doubled down on removing misinformation following platform boycotts in 2020, and TikTok introduced enhanced privacy controls after accusations of high reach amongst children.

These enhanced safety features protect consumers’ mental health and should be welcomed by brands as both part of their social responsibility towards consumers and their own brand protections. Brands should ensure they contribute positively to social media and hold platforms accountable, however, do brands need to go further? While all brands should recognise the mental health impact of social media, they should keep their messaging on-brand.

 Do consumers want their favourite butter brand to publicly fight for their mental health on social media? For most the answer is no and given that a recent GWI report showed that 39% of UK consumers feel that only some brands are authentic in supporting causes, brands should only take action if they have an authentic role to play in that conversation.