In January 2022, in Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) updated its code in relation to social media advertising, which comes into effect later this year. In a nutshell, the TGA states that social media influencers will no longer be able to promote health products through their social media sites in the same way they did before. In particular, influencers are banned from publishing testimonials and offering personal opinions on a product that they have been paid for. This means a change to how influencers promote health products.
Something else which is often advertised and promoted through social media by influencers is mindfulness meditation. Many influencers share their personal experiences and testimonials with meditation and provide information on how to best practice mindfulness as well as definitions of what mindfulness and/or meditation is.
In recent years, mindfulness has become a bit of a hype term, with many mindfulness programs advertised, including through influencers. But, it can be difficult to ascertain which mindfulness program, practice or app to choose in this mindfulness maze.
A much-cited research article published in 2018 has warned of this “hype” of mindfulness. One of the negative effects of the current popularity of mindfulness meditation is that it is often seen as a panacea, believed to heal all ills.
An issue with mindfulness being seen in this way is that it asks individuals to be solely responsible for their wellbeing, rather than societal systems or dysfunctional organisational contexts. For instance, last year, Amazon installed their Amazon meditation pods as part of enhancing wellbeing in employees. Amazon has been much criticised for this since it did not solve the problems related to the working conditions that warehouse workers face and regulate unhelpful working environments, but rather made workers themselves responsible for reducing their work-related stress by telling them to visit the pods and practice mindfulness.
Due to the vast amount of mindfulness programs available, there are common misconceptions about mindfulness, and what is needed for mindfulness practice to work. What can make it more difficult when choosing a mindfulness program or meditation practice, is social media influencers recommending mindfulness meditation programs, apps, and practices, often without making sure that these are validated exercises and programs.
You may think that, surely, mindfulness meditation is a good thing which can only benefit people, and so why should it not be promoted via social media influencers?
You may also think that maybe mindfulness meditation is different from the health products influencers have been restricted to promote by the TAG, and surely, there is no harm in practising mindfulness?
Actually, there is. Although much research has found that mindfulness can be really helpful for people to deal with everyday stress and mental health, mindfulness may not be helpful for everyone and can also be practised incorrectly and even in a way which may be harmful for some. This is especially the case for mindfulness meditation practices from sources not backed by research.
Here’s an example: anyone who has tried mindfulness meditation before knows, focusing on the present moment can be tricky. You may find that you are having difficulty focusing on your breathing and instead think about your shopping list, what you’re going to make for dinner tonight, or what you have to do later in the day. You may even think about whether you are doing it right. This is called “mind-wandering”.
However, mind-wandering is a completely normal thing to experience for us humans.
In mindfulness practice, a very important element is ”non-judgement”. This means that when the mind does wander while you are trying to focus on the present moment, for instance on breathing, it is not about feeling bad or being angry at yourself for not being able to focus, but about acknowledging that the mind has wandered and gently returning your attention to the breath, without judging yourself for having lost focus.
This non-judgement is an integral part of mindfulness practice, as it allows us to approach the experience of focusing on the present moment, for instance observing our breath, with gentleness and kindness, rather than beat ourselves up if our mind wanders.
However, if mindfulness practice is being taught by influencers who are not aware of the element of non-judgement since they have not studied mindfulness comprehensively, this can result in harm to followers, such as judging themselves and feeling worthless or guilty for being unable to complete practices in a way they were told is “correct” by influencers.
Therefore, the question is: should social media influencers be banned from sharing personal opinions and testimonials and providing definitions and how-to’s about mindfulness meditation, similarly to restrictions relating to health products; seeing as this is so closely linked to mental health? Could it perhaps be helpful to at least have social media influencers include a caveat about the fact that their understanding and practice of mindfulness is not based on scientific knowledge?
With the current hype and misinformation around mindfulness, more education and open conversations about mindfulness are needed, so that people are able to use it as a wellbeing tool in the way it was intended.
We might therefore need to rethink social media influencers without any mindfulness training recommending and providing information on mindfulness programs and practices. Instead, it could be helpful for influencers to refer their followers to experienced practitioners, teachers and researchers.