Exploring Anime and Adolescent Mental Health

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Anime is a popular Japanese cartoon animation that is taking the teenage world by storm. Anime characters have unusually large eyes, drastically coloured wind-swept hair, and heads that are larger than normal for their body shape and size. 

Film, animation, and other types of media can have a big impact on the thoughts and feelings of young people and the social norms that shape society. Through its portrayal of different characters, anime may have both positive and negative effects on how young people perceive themselves and others around them.

Anime often challenges traditional binary gender norms, portraying ideas of gender fluidity that may help young people feel more accepted and go some way to breaking down harmful stigmas. However, Anime bodies also tend to present unrealistic body ideals to young people that may contribute to body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem.  

In this blog, we take a look at the rise in popularity of Anime and the different ways that the cartoon may affect young people’s mental health and their sense of identity. 

Anime in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Beyond

The anime trend that started life in Japan has reached across Asia and is now gaining popularity around the world. Three-quarters of the population in Japan watch anime, with the USA coming in second, where 72% of people watch anime shows. 

Anime proliferated in Malaysia in the 1980s when Japanese TV shows began to appear on Malaysian TV. By 2010, the majority of animation shows in Malaysia were produced in the US and Japan. Today, Japanese animation (anime) is established as a significant and influential film medium and subculture.

In Singapore, Japanese anime and manga have been enjoyed since the 1960s. Anime became increasingly popular towards the end of the last century and, by the early 2000s, anime shows were consistently broadcast on Singaporean TV. While the number of shows on traditional channels has declined over the past decade, it is still accessible and watched through other mediums throughout the country.

As with Singapore, anime arrived in Hong Kong in the 1960s. The cartoons quickly became popular and soon, Hong Kong was the first city other than Tokyo to host a Japanese anime exhibition. Today, anime is enjoyed as a leader of mainstream popular culture and an insight into Japanese film and its way of life.

Anime and Eating Disorders

While many young people enjoy Anime, the cartoon may also have serious and harmful consequences. 

In recent years, studies have recorded a rise in eating disorders in many Asian countries. Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that can harm young people’s physical health, mental well-being, and social life. Eating problems can look very different from one young person to another. They may involve using food as a coping mechanism, a fear of gaining weight, or dissatisfaction with their body image.

Research has found that media portrayals of unrealistic body ideals can contribute to eating disorders among young people. Unrealistic ideals can damage young people’s self-esteem, pushing them to strive for a different body shape that is unhealthy or in many cases impossible.

Many anime series portray characters with heads that are larger than normal for their bodies. Characters often have unrealistic, small body shapes with almost no diversity.

Young people may try to copy the body shapes they see in anime cartoons, understanding them as ‘ideal’ or even normal. Many characters in anime shows are school or college-aged, making it easier for young people to compare themselves to the bodies that they see. 

The lack of diversity in body size and shape throughout anime shows may also teach young people that there is only one way that their bodies should be, rather than encouraging them to celebrate bodies of all shapes and sizes. It makes it more likely that there is a difference between young people’s actual bodies and their perceived ‘ideal’, a pattern that often underlies body dissatisfaction and negative body image.

As with other forms of media, steps can be taken to try and reduce the harmful effects of anime on young people. Perhaps most importantly, the content of anime shows should be changed to portray diverse, realistic body shapes and a message of body positivity. At the same time, media education can help young people to see the ideals presented in TV and film more critically, creating a distance between what they see in media and how they view themselves. Finally, young people can change the kinds of media that they consume, staying away from media that present unrealistic body ideals and choosing to follow things that have a positive effect on their mental well-being.

Defining Identities: Anime and the ‘Other’

Adolescence and young adulthood is a time of self-discovery. Young people often explore questions of identity, forming a clearer idea of who they are and how they want to express themselves. They may explore gender identity, sexuality, and religion.

Societies across the world have a tendency to form conceptions of the ‘other’ – identities and ways of expression that are opposed to dominant identities, power structures, and cultures. Conceptions of otherness can oppress and stigmatise these identities, preventing individuals and groups from finding and expressing their true selves. Ideas of the ‘other’ also oppress certain ethnic and racial identities, marginalising certain groups of society.

During adolescence, these stigmas and oppressions can have a big impact on the mental health of young people. They may feel unable to be their true selves or be judged and excluded for who they are. Opposing these exclusive dominant social norms and structures of oppression is crucial to ensure the mental well-being of all the different groups and identities of young people.

Today, film, animation, and other fictional narratives are important mediums for articulating, reinforcing, or opposing concepts of otherness. These fictional narratives can choose to present dominant cultures as ideals, or to offer us other ideas, challenging our ideas of what is ‘normal’. 

In a research paper published in 2008, Kaori Yoshida argues that rather than re-enforcing dominant gender, race, ethnic, and national identity norms, animations in both the West and Asia involve symbolic ambiguities that challenge them. Instead of presenting a binary division between the ‘West’ and the ‘East’, he proposes that these animations can create an in-between space that may challenge the dominant identity categories. Other researchers have noted that anime often displays conceptions of gender fluidity, altering traditional views of gender and gender roles. These destabilisations of the ‘other’ may help to open the space for broader identity expression and acceptance, promoting societies where more young people and adults can be their true selves.

The Over-Sexualisation of Anime

There are some ways that anime may have a positive impact on gender norms, from its portrayal of gender fluidity to its endorsement of female superheroes in series like My Hero Academia. However, other aspects of its cartoon characters may have more harmful consequences.

Many anime series continue to over-sexualise female characters, appealing to a traditional ‘male fantasy’ that objectifies women’s bodies and presents unrealistic body shapes. Many female characters are still given subordinate and passive features, often portrayed as hopeless romantics that are subordinate to a male lead. In many cases, these features intertwine, as producers compensate for a lack of character development in female roles with the over-sexualisation of their bodies.

The over-sexualisation of female characters and their bodies can have pervasive effects on the mental health of young people. Unrealistic body ideals can lead to low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction. Over-sexualisation may cause teenagers and adolescents to place their self-value in their appearance or bodies, objectifying themselves and disregarding their other gifts. This may lead to a preoccupation with shape and weight and prevent them from valuing other parts of themselves, such as their personality, relationships with others, talents, and contributions to the world around them.

Anime, Sub-Culture, and Mental Health

In Japan, Anime represents a type of subculture – an interest that young people group around to find social belonging and a sense of common identity. As a subculture, Anime can help young people to find social support and to build a reputation. Anime fans may group together, united by their shared interest. At the same time, anime constitutes a type of identity and expression to the outside world, affecting the way that young people are perceived by others.

Both support and social reputation or acceptance can have an important impact on someone’s well-being, causing subcultures like anime to have a significant effect on a young person’s mental health. 

Anime culture tends to be stigmatised by young society in Japan, resulting in a negative reputation among other young people. Researchers have found that young people who identify as Anime fans have an increased risk of mental health concerns, including aggression, depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and eating disorders. (Liu. Y., 2022). While belonging to anime subculture did slightly increase young people’s social support, this didn’t have a significant impact on their well-being.

The researchers found that, across a range of subcultures, the reputation of each group was linked to the mental health of its members. Subcultures with a high reputation (such as sports) had fewer mental health concerns, while those with a low reputation (such as anime) had more. 

This research shows the importance of challenging stigmas and social pressures to conform to certain stereotypes and ways of expression that are considered ‘normal’ and ‘popular’. Otherwise, young people may be left unable to discover and express themselves freely – or find that their well-being is affected as a result.

The Wave Clinic – Making a Difference in Young People’s Mental Health

The Wave Clinic offers a transformative recovery experience for young people, helping them to plan and build the futures they dream of. Our whole-person approach combines expert clinical care with education, social responsibility, and a gap year experience, supporting young people to reconnect with their passions and rediscover their love of life. 

Situated in the incredible natural beauty of Malaysia, we offer young people the chance to develop skills through practical experience, whether in our cooking garden or on camping trips. Our programs are full of opportunities to build interpersonal connections and lasting friendships with others.

We understand that teens and adolescents have unique needs that require specialist care. Our dedicated programs draw on experts from around the world with exceptional experience and qualifications in young people’s mental health. We ensure every young person receives the best care available.

If you have any questions or want to get started on the admissions process, contact us today to begin the journey. 

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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