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How Social Media Affects Our Kids Body Image — and What We Can Do About It

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Can Facebook images impact teen body image? Credit: Johan Larsson, Flickr

It’s so easy to fall into the comparison trap of social media. You find yourself jealous of that beach vacation your best friend from elementary school is taking. You see that perfect home-cooked meal on someone’s Instagram and wonder why yours never turn out that way. You see that amazing Pinterest pin and realize you’ll never have time to complete a project like that even if you skipped sleep for an entire week. But social media doesn’t just get you down about your lack of vacation-taking and homemaking skills — it can play a part in body image too, at least for young girls.

In a recent study, adolescent girls were surveyed about their Facebook habits and body image. Results of the research suggested that it wasn’t total time spent on Facebook or the Internet, but the amount of Facebook time allocated to photo activity that is associated with greater thin ideal internalization, self-objectification, weight dissatisfaction, and drive for thinness. It’s hard to determine whether those with body image issues are drawn to looking at images on social media or if images influence body image issues, but researchers speculate that both factors may be at play here.

Previous studies have examined the impact of exposure to fashion magazines on women’s body image satisfaction. In one study, women who viewed fashion magazines preferred to weigh less, were less satisfied with their bodies, were more frustrated about their weight, were more preoccupied with the desire to be thin, and were more afraid of getting fat than were their peers who viewed news magazines. It seems that instead of feeling good after flipping through glossy magazines and websites — something that should be entertaining and fun — women feel worse.

I remember flipping through fashion magazines as a teen — again and again — looking at girls with luxurious locks of hair and perfectly toned bodies. Never mind that I, too, had long, luxurious locks and was super fit; the models in the magazines seemed to portray an ideal body and life to work toward — and if I used their shampoo or used that lip gloss, I’d be like them, too. Knowing how those magazines made me feel as a pre-teen, I’ll be hard-pressed to subscribe to anything like that for my daughter. Plus with the extent of airbrushing that goes into these photos now is likely much greater than when I was an adolescent. Now, even more “imperfections” are erased to further create an unattainable ideal.

The link between body image dissatisfaction and low self-esteem is known. According to KidsHealth.org, eating disorders involve self-critical, negative thoughts and feelings about body weight and food, and eating habits that disrupt normal body function and daily activities. If looking at images in magazines and social media helps to create — or perpetuate — those negative thoughts, parents can try to stay abreast of these kinds of issues and stay on the forefront of prevention, limiting social media time, for instance, and being involved and discussing the content their kids are viewing regularly.

I’m already cognizant about the messages I send to my kids when it comes to body image. I keep any body hang-ups to myself, and I make sure they know that mommy exercises to stay healthy and strong, not to fit into a certain size. It makes my day when my daughter comments that we eat food to stay healthy or that “mommy exercises to stay super strong.” I want my daughter to be inspired by the things she can do by staying fit and healthy, the places she’ll go, the things she’ll be able to do. I don’t want her to think life is about fitting into that dress that’s hanging in your closet. I hope when my daughter is old enough to get on social media that she’s posting sweaty pictures of herself after a hard-fought soccer game, not choosing the one in which she looks as thin as can be, and not looking at images of thinner friends or models and thinking that’s the goal in life. I hope the pictures she’s viewing are those that inspire her to live life and see new things — not that make her want to shrink her body to fit an ideal. Instead, it’s my job to help her build confidence, a positive body image, and encourage her to get out there and live life to the fullest, and the best way to do so is to do that myself.

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Read more of Erin’s writing at Fit Bottomed Girls and Fit Bottomed Mamas.

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