Hop on Instagram these days, and you won’t have to scroll far to find countless photos of thin, tightly-toned people with perfect hair, clothing and makeup smiling at you from your screen. As adults, often it’s easier to recognize that filters play a major roll in these magazine-like images, but to a child, the standard being set is one that is almost impossible to attain.
Like it or not, social media is a common peer for most adolescents and teens, and kids are gaining access to smartphones and other digital devices at a much younger age. In fact, a 2017 Nielson study revealed nearly half of American kids receive a smartphone by the age of 10.
It used to be that celebrities were most often featured in airbrushed magazines found on drugstore racks, but with the rise of the digital world, these images of false perfection are easily accessed and predominantly spread across the social media platforms most frequented by young people. The pressure to present perfection online has increased at an alarming rate, and it’s taking a significant toll on our kids – particularly young girls.
“There is a growing crisis in children and young people’s mental health, and in particular a gathering crisis in mental distress and depression among girls and young women,” Dr. Bernadka Dubicka of the Royal College of Psychiatrists told the Guardian. “There’s a pressure for young people to be involved 24/7 and keep up with their peer group or they will be left out and socially excluded.”
A recent YMCA survey of 1,000 youth ages 11 to 16 revealed 62% of 15 to 16- year-olds felt major pressure to look a certain way because of what they were seeing on social media. Celebrity accounts were the most influential, with 58% of the kids surveyed saying the beauty standard sent by Instagram’s most famous users was the most impactful.
But it’s not just the teens who felt the anxiety of social media standards. Forty-three percent of the 11 to 12-year-olds surveyed said the images they see on social media played a role in the way they felt about their own image, and influenced their perception of what a “real” body looks like.
In fact, a 2012 study revealed 80% of 10-year-old American girls had been on a diet.
“Today’s beauty standard is completely unobtainable, leading us to constantly feel bad about our bodies and looks,” Denise Hatton, the chief executive for YMCA England and Wales, told the Guardian. “This is particularly the case for young people and it can have serious effects on their mental and physical wellbeing.”
A 2015 study by Common Sense Media found that 35% of teens surveyed admitted to stressing over being tagged in “unattractive” photos posted to social media, 27% said they were often stressed about how they look in photos, and 22% said they felt bad about themselves when they didn’t get enough comments or likes on a photo they posted.
The YMCA has partnered with beauty brand Dove for its Be Real Campaign, which encourages transparency and authenticity on social media by asking users to stop editing their photos before posting.
“The latest part of this movement is the Be Real Body Image Pledge which calls on the advertising, fashion, music and media industries to pledge to transform the way they portray body image and to responsibly reflect reality, diversity and healthy role models for all,” the company’s website reads. “And we think it’s a change that can’t come soon enough.”
The hope is that youth will put aside the pressure to meet an impossible standard, and instead embrace the things that truly make each person beautiful.
“We’ve all been guilty of only posting our most flattering pictures on social media,” Hatton said. “While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to show yourself from your best angle, it’s important that we still like ourselves when we’re not looking our best, which is probably the majority of the time for most of us.”
The negative effects of frequent social media use in teens are widespread. Studies have shown teens who spend a lot of time scrolling Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat have difficulty sleeping and increased anxiety and depression.
So what can we as parents do to combat these negative effects? Common Sense Media suggests body image talk starts at home.
- Ban all “fat talk”: Tell your kids what you appreciate about your own body and watch what you say about others.
- Get involved: Stay tuned into your kids lives by asking them about school, friends and feelings. Nurture a positive self image and steph in when necessary.
- Start early: Emphasize health and not weight, teach appreciation for all body types and people and focus on talents and strengths instead of outward appearance.
- Immunize your child: Choose quality media with diverse characters, question assumptions about appearance and challenge stereotypes.
- Be a social media supporter: Help teens find supportive online communities, encourage social media breaks when drama unfolds, and ask your teens how online feedback makes them feel.