Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, WhatsApp, Vine, Tumblr, YouTube. We have never been so connected. By the beginning of 2015, Facebook alone had over 1.44 billion monthly active users – and with smartphones offering a handy portal to the online community, anytime, anywhere, those figures don’t look like they’ll be shrinking any time soon.
But while most grown-ups will admit to a spot of status-update envy from time to time, 24-7 social media exposure is having a considerably more drastic effect on kids and teens. A recent study from the American University in Washington DC spoke to a cross section of teenage girls about their online habits and body image. Researchers found that increased ‘internet appearance exposure’ (ie more time spent looking at and posting photos) led to a higher level of weight dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, appearance comparison and self-objectification.
“The changes that come along with puberty often make tweens and teens feel self-conscious and awkward about their bodies,” explains Ingrid Pretorius, school counsellor at Greenfield Community School in Dubai. “Tweens and especially teen girls appear to be particularly vulnerable to developing a negative body image. They tend to ignore other abilities and focus on appearance as evidence of worthiness.”
“Social media is, inarguably, having an impact on how children and teens view their bodies,” says Madeeha Afridi, counselling psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia, who specialises in working with children and adolescents.
“The more media exposure they have, the greater the chance of them being influenced by external sources, which can have a correlation to heightened insecurities. Developmentally, youth are going through an exploratory stage where they are discovering their sense of self.
“Youngsters who grew up without social media discovered their sense of self within their immediate social group and their community at large; today’s kids have the world at their fingertips via the internet, which can lead to added confusion, pressures, insecurities and doubts, which many are already feeling at this stage.”
While those teenage years have never been particularly easy – what with raging hormones, peer pressure, changing relationships and exam stress – today’s tweens and teens live in a markedly different world to those born just a decade or two earlier. Social circles, once limited to a network of school friends, the local community and those at the end of a telephone line, have now become global – today’s kids have a peer network that spans continents, cultures and creeds, the majority of whom they will never meet in real life. This has many positives, from breaking down traditional social barriers, to offering an online support system to kids who don’t feel like they fit in. But at the same time, it feeds teens’ innate need for social approval – validating their self-worth through ‘likes’ and comments rather than genuine interaction.
“Kids will always experiment with expression, the way they talk, dress and behave,” says Anya, mum to a 12-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. “Social media is just another tool for them to express themselves and discover their identity. But I feel that this generation has it thrust in their face by being online all the time. Their aspirations for their online image and popularity are so much wider. The value they place on being ‘liked’ and the whole YouTuber enterprise, not to mention being able to comment and be commented on by complete strangers – I find it terrifying and depressing.”
Christine, who has two girls aged 15 and 17, agrees. “I think they do tend to over-scrutinise their own images and they seem obsessed with documenting everything. I probably have a handful of photos from when I was a teenager but they have thousands. Everything is put on Snapchat too, which is very frustrating. On many occasions I find my eldest daughter videoing herself eating, laughing, making stupid faces and sending them to her friends through Snapchat. No one is immune and I’m sure her friends have been subjected to numerous videos of me doing something embarrassing.”
Skewed self image
With statistics released by Google estimating that 93 million selfies are taken every single day on Android devices alone, there’s growing pressure to post the perfect picture, with thousands waiting to dissect and critique every last detail.
“Children and teens are placing more emphasis on their physical looks, rather than seeing the value of nurturing intrinsic qualities such as kindness, generosity and compassion,” says Madeeha. “There is a sense of competition among youth now to look as flawless as the models in magazines and celebrities on the red carpet.”
However, from flattering filters to airbrushing in photoshop, nothing is quite as it seems.
“My eldest is studying media for her A-levels, so both of my kids are well aware that images are often manipulated,” says Christine. “But I’m not sure they always remember this when comparing themselves with the images they see.”
Madeeha cites Kim Kardashian’s bestseller, Selfish, as the perfect example of the impact of selfies and the pressures on today’s youth to appear a certain way. The undisputed queen of the selfie and one of the most searched-for online celebrities, Kardashian and her ilk hold an undeniable sway over the way young people view, judge and show off their bodies in today’s society. Social media trends – such as the ‘thigh gap’, the ‘thinspiraton’ hashtag or even the ‘no make-up challenge’ – become a unifying badge of honour while vying for likes and positive comments. Not that they can’t backfire.
Take the #kyliejennerchallenge, for example, which saw kids take to YouTube as they tried to emulate the star’s plumped-up pout. “I dealt with a case where a girl placed her mouth into an empty plastic bottle and squeezed all the air out. She’d seen this on YouTube but she was the only one who attempted it – she wanted to enlarge her lips,” recalls Ingrid. “She kept [her mouth inside] for several minutes and the result was very swollen, bruised lips for over a week.”
“Selfies can be a sign of low self-esteem,” says Elizabeth Kesses, author of The Ugly Little Girl. “Photoshopping your image or appearing to be someone you are not, are all signs of someone who is not happy with themselves.
“Beauty has been defined for far too long as your face and body. Little girls are told they are pretty and boys are strong or smart,” says Elizabeth.
“We need to make beauty about more than skin, teeth and hair. We need to shift the focus to girls’ talents, passions and skills, whether it’s creativity, mindfulness or bravery. Those are the qualities that make her truly unique. Social media can be a forum to celebrate and explore our non-physical attributes and connect with others who share our passions.”
The link between a negative body image and low self-esteem is well documented, and the UK’s National Health Service reports that the number of teenagers admitted to hospital with eating disorders has nearly doubled over the past three years – with many experts blaming the rise of the selfie. A recent survey, Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image, discovered that 35 per cent of teens were worried about being tagged in unattractive photos, 27 per cent felt stressed about how they looked in posted photos, and a further 22 per cent felt bad about themselves if their photos were overlooked.
A positive attitude
As parents of kids and teens exposed to this sort of pressure, is it possible to counteract the negatives? Madeeha believes there is more to it than simply banning one particular site. “In my experience, it’s not so much one specific site that impacts kids, rather an accumulation of everything kids are exposed to online, such as chatting, blogging, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and more,” she says.
“If parents think only one specific social media site is having a negative effect on their child, they need to look at the larger picture.”
While attitudes towards body image are enforced from an early age, Christine believes that advocating a healthier lifestyle is always a positive thing. “Girls will always be critical of the way they look, but promoting a healthy diet and plenty of exercise isn’t a bad thing,” she says. “I am always complimenting my daughters and telling them they are wonderful, but they do know I’m biased, so I hope they believe me.”
For Anya, the current obsession with body image is a reflection of a wider issue. “I think as adults, as mums, we also react to what we see and perhaps unwittingly reinforce unhealthy messages and unrealistic aspirations that kids are exposed to,” she says. “I see the drivers for unhealthy choices – not just around self image but around behaviour in general – as part of relinquishing responsibility for your happiness, security and decision-making to others. As it always has been, my job as a parent is to teach my kids and show them the tools within themselves to be contributing and independent members of society.”
“Working with families in my practice, there is a notable difference in the emotional well-being of children and teens with limited access to technology, compared with those who have no rules on media usage,” says Madeeha Afridi. “In short, parents have to make the choice to be in charge of rules around technology and media in their home.” Before enforcing house rules, be open in communicating to your children why there are specific rules. “The ‘I said so’ approach isn’t the best way to go about it,” she adds. “Children are living in a digitally driven society and benefit from having a proper understanding of why parents would want to set such limitations. Including children and teens in such dialogues makes them feel informed and respected.”