Reflecting on Reflection: The Impact of Social Media on Teen Body Image

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Social media has become an increasingly integral part of our lives, providing an easy way to connect and stay up-to-date with the lives of others, news, and trends. Unfortunately, the effects of this increased presence on social media can be quite damaging. Rather than viewing body positive content, social media often promotes a range of mental health problems which can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation. It can also create an unhealthy obsession with comparison and competition as we sit under the constant curated bombardment of other people’s perfect lives.

For teen social media users whose sense of self, self-esteem, and body image is still in a very developmental phase, this “comparison” element of social media is especially risky. The proliferation of airbrushed photos and advertisements featuring idealised body types has led to increased dissatisfaction among teens who cannot meet these unachievable standards.

At the same time, the rise of peer creators and aesthetic influencers across many realms of image-based online media (think TikTok and Instagram as well as YouTube and Facebook) contributes to the perceived normalcy of certain body types and styles, adding profoundly to the shame of not looking a certain way. All this encourages young social media users to focus on their physical appearance in a way we couldn’t have predicted in past decades.

Body Dissatisfaction and Youth Media Trends

Social media platforms have become curated spaces with a lot more negative impact on teens and young adults than feeds of inspiring landscapes and cute dogs suggest. Young people spend a huge portion of their social time online, and these digital spaces are rife with negative messages and unrealistic expectations about physical appearance that challenge the growth of positive body image during some of the most defining years of our lives. Further information on the impact of the expanding trend of TikTok can be found via our blog TikTok and Mental Health.

“Peer Celebrity” Social Media Accounts

Seeing images in the media that uphold unrealistic body weight and shape norms as “beautiful” or “valuable” is a trend as old as media itself; however, the way that this is presented to us has evolved a lot in recent decades. Appearance-related content in traditional media has always had adverse body image effects, but it may have been easier in the past to distance oneself from what we saw of models and Hollywood celebrities. Today, mass media exists outside of airbrushed ads, professionally shot and edited films and glossy magazines.

In a sense, this is “democratising” – the chance to gain a following by sharing one’s image has been made widely available by social media platforms. There is a sense that youth influencers are “average” people, and their images imply authenticity and attainability. Social media and body image content produced by these peer celebrities can be seriously problematic for teens and adolescents. When an Instagram feed is concentrated with images that appear to reflect reality but hide all of their production value, it’s easy to uncritically compare one’s own appearance and body image to the person on the screen.

“Body Negative” Content and the Social Media Fitness Industry

All of these passive forces and norms that young people face online and in the real world promoting body dissatisfaction build up over time – and eventually, many people decide at some point to take their bodies into their own hands.

Many corners of the online fitness and beauty communities are fertile grounds for developing devastating physical health habits. A young person looking to lose weight does not have to spend long before finding communities of thousands that explicitly or implicitly promote disordered eating, extreme restriction, obsessive behaviours, and severely appearance related ways of valuing and talking about bodies. Searches for free fitness instructor videos will take many people to creator pages decorated with “thinspo” imagery, thin women and men posing in fitness gear, promises to change followers’ body shape in unrealistic ways, and extreme bodybuilding.

To make matters more confusing, these fitness content creators and communities often utilise aspects of the language of body image positivity, all while encouraging regimented diets, untrained high-impact exercise, daily weigh-ins, progress photos, and daily measurement updates. Movement and nutrition can be great ways to work on one’s physical and mental health, but the premium placed on counting and measuring can trigger eating disorders. It can also alienate an at-risk user further from a positive sense of connection to their own body.

Mainstream spaces online can become echo chambers for negative body image values masked as good health and self-improvement, and discretion needs to be cultivated in teens using social media for this purpose.

Young Women, Young Men: Some Gendered Trends

More than half of women report dissatisfaction with their body image, weight, and shape – and it’s easy to see why female social media users are at unique risk. However, negative body image concerns are not unique to one gender.

In boys, eating disorders and body dysmorphia disorder are both likely underdiagnosed. Muscle building and efforts to change body shape are more likely to be encouraged as social hobbies in teenage boys. While gym training is a very healthy part of many people’s lifestyles regardless of gender, it can cloak muscle dysmorphia, a condition far more prevalent in men and boys than in their female counterparts.

Breaking the Mirror: Challenging Social Media’s Body Narratives

Social media companies are not thinking about users’ mental health, which has real consequences for the development of self-image in young people. When we see the internet holding up a warped reflection of reality, we must find ways to combat these narratives at home and in our daily lives.

Encourage Following Positive Influencers and Body Positive Content

Where parts of the online world and social media are inundated with content that promotes negative body image issues, other fields of creation aim to spread narratives that positively impact body image and are directed at young people using social media. Online, the body-accepting community is something of a counter-insurgence.

Body-positive content focuses on an individual’s physical and mental health and well-being, regardless of size, shape, age, gender, or other physical traits. Follow, share, and discuss body-positive accounts celebrating people of all body types. Most body-positive images have no mention or focus on physical attributes, which is an excellent way to encourage and model this mode of framing the self.

Open Up About Positive and Negative Body Image

Talking through emotions with teenagers can be a difficult process, but it is also an essential step in helping them develop a healthy emotional and mental outlook on their internal worlds. At the same time, family members’ support is a key factor in helping individuals develop resilience against the forces that drive negative body image in young people – be they unhelpful comparison or peer pressure from friends and social networks.

Don’t shy away if you feel a family member or close friend making a bid to talk about positive or negative feelings related to their body image, eating patterns, or abilities. Take a breath if you need to, and work to engage with them openly and non-judgementally. It can be helpful to work towards solutions, but many of us need to start from a safe space of open, active listening to begin with.

Dietary Education

Many adults and youth alike have a lot of digesting to do when it comes to our societal relationship with food. Social media is full of extreme, implicit narratives that reinforce young women and men’s internalisation of disordered eating patterns and fraught relationships with nutrition.

In light of this, households should encourage healthy habits through role modelling, education, and honest conversation. Make regular meals full of various healthy, enjoyable ingredients a part of your daily and weekly lives. Be open about the joy that delicious food brings into our lives, but divert or challenge behaviours that lean into using it as an emotional crutch. Cooking and eating together promotes the notion that food is both an enjoyable

Body Image: Abilities Over Appearances

Ability-focused body image is the concept of looking at the body in terms of its functionality rather than appearance. This concept encourages individuals to view their bodies as capable of doing a multitude of activities and things, such as physical exercise, work, and fun activities. It is based on the belief that bodies are capable of more than just looking a certain way and that abilities are more important than aesthetics. It challenges the traditional view of body image, which is often focused on how the body looks.

Teaching adolescents to think about the capabilities of their bodies rather than their physical appearance provides a grounding tether that can steer them away from comparing themselves to unrealistic images of others online and promotes a lifelong motivator for healthy movement choices. Understanding that our bodies are more valuable than our appearance is a much-needed antidote to teen body image dysphoria.

Destress – Away from Social Media Influences

Stress doesn’t make body confidence issues any better and can lead to them becoming a lot worse. Young people and adolescents are often under a lot of mental and emotional stress, which can spiral into physical symptoms like headache, fatigue, and muscle tension – symptoms that do not typically make people feel better about their bodies.

“Doom scrolling” through social media feeds may seem normal to turn off our brains, but it can make us feel worse. Instead, introduce habits of decompression that steer away from screen time and social media. Simply making sure that household schedules provide and encourage ample time to sleep well, engage with hobbies, and socialise in person with supportive friends is an excellent start with a real positive effect.

Seek Treatment for Mood and Eating Disorders

When you’ve seen the signs, don’t suffer in silence: if social media and body image issues negatively impact the mental health of you or a loved one, it is not too late to turn it around.

The Wave can help you. Clients put their trust in us when they join us to retreat and grow – and we return that trust with one of the world’s leading programmes in eating disorder treatment and teen mental health. Contact our team today if you’d like to hear more about our programme, values, and assessment.

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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