Does Smartphone Use Affect Teens’ Body Image?

New research helps to explain the consequences of teens' smartphone use.

Posted Jun 24, 2020

Source: Shutterstock/Oneinchpunch

We’ve all had moments when we feel the pull of our phones, and even though we know we shouldn’t look, we do. Maybe we’re driving or in the middle of a meeting. Maybe we’re talking with family members or spending time with friends, and then we hear a buzz or beep, and we look. Sometimes our smartphones are a distraction, but sometimes they may be worse than that. For example, one recent experimental study that asked thousands of adults to go without Facebook for a month found a boost in overall well-being at follow-up. As adults, we like to think that we can regulate our social media use, and our smartphone use more generally, and avoid use that is problematic or detrimental to our mental health, but the new data suggest that may not always be the case.

And what about teens?

A survey conducted by Pew Research found that 95% of teens have access to a smartphone.  Almost half say they are online nearly constantly, with rates tending to be higher for girls than for boys. Further, teens are more likely to say that their social media use (because, let’s face it, teens are not using their phones to call people) has a more positive than negative impact on their lives, although they’ll admit that what they view is probably often fake and may make them feel inferior.

A brand-new study examines these concerns, in particular in terms of teens’ body image.  By considering smartphone use, emotional regulation, and body esteem among a sample of over 600 adolescents, the researchers hoped to better understand whether or not links between smartphone use and teens’ body image was likely.  Both teen boys’ and girls’ smartphone use was found to be associated with body esteem; more phone use had a negative impact on body esteem, a component of body image described as appearance-related self-esteem. For girls, emotion regulation difficulties appeared to play an important role in this association. Specifically, girls who had a more difficult time regulating their emotions were more likely to experience smartphone use as a contributor to low body esteem.

The study’s lead author, Gianluca Lo Coco, told me that he believes an important implication of this research is that adults need to help adolescent boys and girls regulate their emotions and understand that interactions with their smartphones may provide both positive and negative feedback on their appearance. Adults can play a role in keeping teens from engaging in appearance comparisons with online (e.g., social media) images.

This isn’t to say that all smartphone use – or social media use – is negative or that smartphones should be ditched entirely. Smartphones have been hyped as “addictive,” and yet addiction experts and psychologists generally agree that the consequences associated with smartphone use do not compare with the far-reaching psychological and physical consequences associated with addiction to substances such as drugs.

So, how should we think about teens’ smartphone use?

Source: Shutterstock/skyNext

Body image research has found that any appearance-related information can be “triggering” for individuals who already experience body dissatisfaction. Teens with poor emotion regulation may have a harder time avoiding this triggering information. So, if teens are experiencing concerns about their bodies or appearance more generally, it may be important that adults limit their phone use. Since a majority of teens are apt to experience some body dissatisfaction, maybe the best approach is to make sure that most teens have some phone-free time each day.