The impact of social media and body image: does social networking actually trigger body obsession in today’s teenage girls?

  • Age: 8-14 yrs
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The impact of social media and body image: does social networking actually trigger body obsession in today’s teenage girls?

If your daughter has a tendency toward perfection, a recent study has revealed that the impact of social media on women could include an increase in negative or obsessive thoughts about appearance. Here’s how you can help her avoid the pitfalls of body obsession while using social media.

Welcome to the dazzling world of social media – where today’s youth are often living their lives out loud and in full view of an online audience. For those of us from a different generation, the sense of “checking in” and letting people know where you are dining, taking pictures of your meal, or even better, snapping that “selfie” after eating that meal may just seem a bizarre concept. But not for these digital natives: in today’s virtual world, getting “likes” on photos, posts or comments can wield a powerful sense of accomplishment and, even more, community acceptance. So, can the constant comparison to another’s physical image online create a sense of body dissatisfaction or worse, begin to trigger intense negative thoughts about body image?

Researching the impact of social media on body image

A recent study conducted by Florida State University and published by the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that a group of women, who were asked to browse Facebook for 20 minutes, experienced greater body dissatisfaction than those who spent 20 minutes online, researching rainforest cats. Claire Mysko, an award-winning author and an internationally recognized expert on body image, leadership and media literacy, thinks they may have a point. “While social media is not the cause of low self-esteem, it has all the right elements to contribute to it,” she says. “Social media creates an environment where disordered thoughts and behaviors really thrive.” For girls who have a tendency toward perfection, anxiety and disordered eating, they may see images of thinness as advertising the recipe for happiness, and validation online can falsely fill the need for acceptance. “There is this feeling of wanting to be accepted,” explains Mysko. “It is a universal feeling, but when you get in the space of being on social media, a lot of it is based on feedback and the idea of collecting ‘likes.’ This can serve as a catalyst for more insecurity.”

How can parents change the way social media affects teenagers?

It’s incredibly important that parents of teens understand and embrace how social media affects teenagers because it is becoming the accepted currency of communication today. Johanna Kandel, founder of The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, agrees. “You cannot underestimate having conversations with your daughters – where TVs are off, phones are off, and you get to know your daughter.” It’s important that the conversation be a two-way street – even if you don’t understand her need to post that photo of her lunch, try not to judge. Instead, ask questions about the impact of social media. For example, how does it feel when someone approves of your picture? Why does it feel important to stay connected to your friends online? How many times a day do you compare yourself to someone else? Have you ever felt worse about yourself after scrolling through a social media site? This kind of empowered awareness can help inform her choices.

The impact of social media on teenagers doesn’t need to be negative

Kandel also believes that social media can be positive and inspiring: “You can help your daughter harness that perspective, too, by encouraging her to post inspirational quotes or uplifting messages. This may not only feel empowering for her, but it can also help inspire her friends.” Most of all, says Kandel, “having these types of conversations is an opportunity to teach your daughter how to build her self-worth from the inside out.” By engaging in her online and off-line life, “you can help give her an opportunity to shine and get that sense of empowerment and accomplishment outside of the way they look.”

Action checklist:
Parents versus the impact of social media

Young girls suffering from eating disorders often disconnect from the intimacy of family relationships. While it may often feel like your daughter wants to push you away, Kandel emphasizes the importance of keeping the family close – even through something as simple as eating dinner together. “You can keep your family connected by making a game out of becoming body positive together,” she says. “For every negative body comment said, a point is accrued. At the end of a month, the person with the least points gets to pick a fun family outing.”

Kandel also suggests supporting activities that your daughter loves as a way to stay present in her day-to-day life and boost her self-esteem. Take on a craft project together after dinner. Or play sports together. When your daughter feels proud of something she has created or of a match she has played in, the number of online friends she has becomes far less important.

And if you have your own tips or success stories on how you've managed to pull your daughter away from her devices and get her reengaged with real life, please share them in the comments below.

What next: Social media and body image: conversation starters

Quick tips to help shape your conversations around body image and social media.

  • Remind your daughter that she is more than the way she looks
    Tell her, and tell her often, what you value in her. While this seems simple, and may elicit an eye roll or two, it will help counteract the never-ending slew of perfect images directed at your girl.
  • Talk about what her body can DO
    As women, we are often prone to talking about the things that are wrong with our bodies. Instead, ask your girl what her body did really well this week. Was it walking, running, or playing an instrument? Maybe it was sitting through a long class? Help her see why her body is amazing, no matter how it looks.
  • Teach her media literacy
    It’s hard to remain completely immune to the perfection advertised by our media. Dove’s Evolution video is a great clip to watch with your family – it shows how easily the media can manipulate what someone looks like, and how what you see in a photograph is often a heavily Photoshopped version of reality.

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