Body image and mental health
The rise of social media has led to an increase in the number of digitally manipulated images and researchers across the globe are giving increased attention to the effect of digital editing on young people’s self-esteem.
With the advent of cameras on mobile phones and the development of digital editing techniques, there has been a rise in the popularity of ‘selfies’ (Frith, 2017). This has led to increased attention on the effects of these idealised images of beauty on young people’s perceptions of their own bodies and on their mental health. While the prevalence of photoshopped images of models and celebrities in magazines is not a novel issue, the rise of social media has led to an increase in the number of digitally manipulated images and researchers across the globe are giving increased attention to the effect of digital editing on young people’s self-esteem.
One study found that increased time spent on-line was significantly related to the internalisation of the thin ideal, body surveillance, reduced body esteem, and increased dieting for pre-teenage girls aged 10-12 (Tiggerman and Slater, 2014). In addition, the research also found that time spent on social networking sites including Facebook or MySpace produced stronger correlations with body image concern than did overall Internet exposure. It was concluded that the Internet represents a potent force among pre-teenage girls.
Body image is significant for many young people, both male and female, but particularly females in their teens and early twenties (RSPH, 2017). Approximately 90% of teenage girls are unhappy with their body (Lamb, 2015). Millions of new photographs are uploaded onto social media accounts every hour, drawing young women into appearance-based comparisons whilst they are online (Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier, 2013) Research has demonstrated that when young girls and women in their teens and early twenties view Facebook for only a short period of time, they report greater body image concerns compared to non-users (Tiggeman and Slater, 2013). Research has suggested that social media is also responsible for the rise in younger people wishing to have cosmetic surgery to make them look better. Research demonstrates that approximately 70% of 18-24 years olds would consider having a cosmetic surgical procedure (BAAPS, 2016). Boys also make body comparisons with idealised images of male bodies (Frith, 2017). These muscular, well-toned bodies become objects of aspiration for males who seek to have the ‘perfect’ body image.
Schools play a critical role in addressing the issues, but schools cannot solve the problems in isolation. All young people need access to a social media curriculum through which they develop the skill of being able to critically evaluate online content. In particular, the curriculum should support children and young people to differentiate between images which are real, and those which have been digitally manipulated. In addition, young people need to be educated about the risks associated with cosmetic surgery and gender stereotypes about bodies need to be challenged.
Parents play a crucial role in reinforcing these messages. However, they also need to establish time restrictions to online activity and rules regarding its safe and responsible use. Advertising companies need to play an important role through the depiction of a range of body types (including body sizes, ethnicity and disability) when advertising products.
The influence of social media must be recognised and understood. There is a clear need for parents and schools to collaborate and support young people and it is important that those working with young people can identify whether someone may be struggling with body dissatisfaction. We recognise that most young people are unlikely to give up their social media use. In doing so, we emphasise the importance of ensuring that young people are educated in relation to the risks associated with their use of social media.
Rapid advances in technology will continue to provide new ways for young people to access and use digital content. We must acknowledge and understand these advancements if we are to support young people and enable them to understand the challenges they face.
- Frith, E. (2017), Social Media and Children’s Mental Health: A Review of the Evidence, Education Policy Institute.
- Lamb, B. (2015), Human diversity: Its nature, extent, causes and effects on people, Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.
- Mayer-Schönberger, V. and Cukier, K. (2013), Big data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think, New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
- Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), (2017), Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) submission to inquiry on the impact of cyberbullying on social media on children and young people’s mental health. [Accessed Apr 26] Available from: https://www.rsph.org.uk/uploads/assets/uploaded/ec7a4710-18be-463f-a3f8f5e3fd52c367.pdf (Link No Longer Exists)
- The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS), (2016), Daddy Makeovers and Celeb Confessions: Cosmetic Surgery Procedures Soar in Britain. [Accessed Apr 17] Available from: https://baaps.org.uk/about/news/38/super_cuts_daddy_makeovers_and_celeb_confessions_cosmetic_surgery_procedures_soar_in_britain
- Tiggeman, M. Slater, A. (2013), ‘The internet and body image concerns in preteenage girls’, The Journal of Early Adolescents, 34, (5), 606-620.
- Tiggerman, M. and Slater, A. (2014), ‘NetTweens: The Internet and Body Image Concerns in Pre-teenage Girls’, The Journal of Early Adolescence, 34, (5), 606-620.
Jonathan is Professor of Inclusive Education. His research focuses on LGBTQ+ inclusion and mental health. He is a researcher, teacher educator and qualified teacher.
Samuel is a Lecturer and Associate Researcher at Leeds Beckett University and a Head of Year and Associate Leader at a secondary school and sixth form. He also holds a national training role with a large multi-academy Trust.