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Teens, Body Image, and Social Media

Can we help our teens navigate social media and maintain a healthy body image?

“It can be hard to remember that the rich and famous people and all those fitness gurus on Instagram don’t really look the way they seem to. 99.9% of pictures that these people post are Photoshopped and filtered.”—Lindsay, 19 years old

Lindsay is a smart and thoughtful young woman with her teen years mostly in her rearview mirror. She’s attractive and she has a serious boyfriend. Yet, she still finds herself sometimes falling under the influence of social media; she describes it as a sort of weakness that reason can’t prevent. On days when she’s tired or insecure, just a few “thinspirational” pictures on Instagram could press her to jump on the Keto diet bandwagon.

charlotte markey/shutterstock
Source: charlotte markey/shutterstock

A recent study by Common Sense Media of over a thousand teens (13-17 years) in the U.S. found that 70 percent use social media multiple times per day. Most teens report liking social media, which makes sense otherwise you’d have to wonder why so many of them were using it!

Where results from this study get a bit more interesting though, is in the questions about self-presentation and well-being. Although the majority of teens claim to present themselves realistically on social media, many admit to only sharing information and pictures that make them appear better than they think they really are. One 16-year-old participant in the study confessed, “I pretty much just post stuff that makes me look good and makes me look like my ideal self…”

Many parents feel like it was hard enough to make it through junior high and high school without the added pressure of maintaining perfect pictures on Instagram or creating a YouTube channel. We worry about how all of this affects our kids and their sense of self. The Instagram accounts of peers contribute, too; friends’ photos at social events can make teens feel excluded and unattractive.

Unfortunately, the science addressing parents’ questions and concerns moves much more slowly than does the invention of new social media. However, there are a few recommendations for parents and their teens that can be derived from the research that is available. At the crux of these recommendations is one phrase: Media literacy.

What is media literacy? It basically comes down to understanding the functions of media as well as being a consumer of it. It could be one of the most important skill sets young people could develop in this day and age, and yet there’s next to no education about media literacy in schools.

So, how can we help our kids to become media literate? Think of this acronym F-A-C-E when trying to remember topics to talk about with your tweens and teens.

First, we can suggest that our teens Filter the media they’re exposed to. Body image researchers sometimes refer to this as “protective filtering.” What is meant by this is that social media that’s harmful should be filtered out of our teens’ repertoire online. And, by harmful, I don’t necessarily mean contact with strange men in distant cities (although that probably doesn’t bode well, either). I mean that we want our teens to get practiced at thinking about how certain social media platforms and interactions make them feel. If it makes them feel consistently bad, we want to encourage them to protect themselves from feeling bad in the future by dropping those apps or “friends”—by filtering out the negativity.

Second, we want to encourage—or possibly force—our teens to Avoid at least some social media at least some of the time. This is taking filtering one step further for the purpose of encouraging some real-world interactions and evading negative online interactions.

Further, CommonSense Media’s survey suggests a possible link between media use (of all kinds) and kids’ social-emotional well-being, with very high media users rating their relationships with others (e.g., parents, friends) and their emotional health (e.g., tendency towards sadness) lower than kids who use less media. Although it is impossible to know if media use is the chicken or the egg in these analyses (i.e., it is possible that poor relationships and sadness lead kids to seek solace online), it seems at least possible that a life lived primarily online can feel somewhat lonely.

Given the strong pull of social media, it also seems valuable to remind our teens that you do not need to engage with any media. They can erase an app from their phone or stop themselves from responding to others’ comments on social media. We want our teens to feel empowered to make choices concerning their media use, including choosing to avoid some social media.

Third, we want to teach our teens to be Careful of Comparisons. Social comparisons, as psychologists call them, are pervasive as we grow up because we have a hard time objectively evaluating “how we are doing.” We look to others’ appearance and accomplishments as some sort of metric or standard with which to live up to. But, social media is hardly a source of objective information! And, it is easy for teens to find themselves feeling inferior when they compare themselves to the “highlight reel” of others’ lives as they are presented online. We want to encourage our teens to replace feelings of inferiority with a focus on their strengths and to teach them that others’ successes do not mean they are failing; we all have different areas in which we excel.

Fourth, Evaluate what your teens are seeing on social media and encourage them to do the same. The images available online can be particularly pernicious in that they are rarely accurate representations of reality. The majority of online images are filtered, edited, or altered in some way as to present an idealized representation of a person’s appearance or experience. We need our teens to learn to reflexively respond to what they see as “fake” so that they don’t internalize impossible standards for how they should look or what they should be doing.

Research suggests that media literacy can help to protect youths’ body image and that teens who are more critical of the media and thoughtful about their media use tend to have more positive feelings about their bodies. As parents, we may understand that we can’t protect our children from everything and we may never fully understand social media and everything our kids are doing online. However, talking about social media with our tweens and teens and encouraging media literacy — filtering, avoiding, being careful of comparisons, and evaluating — is a step towards reducing any potential pitfalls of social media use and raising kids who can take the “reality” presented online with a grain of salt.

More from Charlotte Markey Ph.D.
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