Ask the Mediatrician: How does social media affect body image?

Michael RichQ: I am a 7th grader working on an independent research project about whether using social media can be addictive and how using social media affects adolescent girls’ body image. What does the scientific research show? And how can I learn more about this?

~ Scrutinizing Social Media, Wellesley, MA

Dear Scrutinizing,

As a seventh grader, this is an important topic for you to research and to teach your friends about, since you are turning 13, the age at which you are legally able to be using social media. First, let’s address whether social media are “addictive”. We need to be careful about using stigmatizing terms such as “addiction” when discussing behaviors, such as using social media, as they are not exactly the same as addictions to substances, such as alcohol or drugs. While there are social media behaviors that can be compulsive and excessive, such as constantly checking updates, counting “likes” or changing what you have posted, even late into the night, they are qualitatively different. Physical changes occur in the body of a heroin or alcohol addict which cause them to need more of the substance all the time to feel okay and which cause them to be really sick and need medical intervention when they cannot get heroin or alcohol. The psychological need to be on social media more and more, and the anxiety that may occur when not online, are not physical and can be overcome without medical care. Nevertheless, there are many young people who have an attachment to their online lives, whether it be to social media or gaming, that is unhealthy and can cause them significant problems with school performance, social life, and even physical health. They need help to regain balance in their lives, but I am concerned that using the negative term “addiction”, will only lead to denial (most addicts don’t think they have a problem) and not seeking the care and support that they need.

In terms of how social media affect girls’ body image, I think we first need to understand why social media are used. Throughout adolescence, a major developmental task is to establish one’s independence or autonomy from parents and a huge part of that is moving from close family relationships to developing close peer relationships. Seeking out friendships and groups to join has always been a big part of middle and high school life. Social media have simply extended both the reach of that outward drive beyond your school or community, as well as the amount of time you can spend doing it. Now it is possible for you and your friends to continue connecting with your peers 24/7, rather than just at school or in sports.

Given young people’s drive to connect with peers and those with whom they would like to be peers, they often turn to social media, and even to traditional media (such as TV, movies, and magazines) for validation, not just for body image, but for virtually everything they think, do, and are. Part of the drive to establish oneself with peers is a strong need to fit in, so many tweens and teens feel that they need to check that they look ok, say the right things, and don’t come across as silly or different. Young people learn how to behave in the world from the role models they chose, whether they are movie stars or others whom they know or would like to know in the social media realm. Unfortunately, consumer products industries have learned to harness this natural desire to fit in or succeed socially as a way of making young people feel inadequate in some way, and then offering them a product with which they can succeed. As an example, look at teen magazines which contain articles such as “Thin Thighs in 30 Days”. These articles start with the implication that the reader’s thighs are not thin enough and then go onto offer the products that can help make them meet a perceived ideal. The ideal, whether it be thinner thighs or more kissable lips, is by design both objectifying and unattainable, so that readers will always feel inadequate and seek additional advice and products. Unfortunately, this can result in girls (and guys) obsessing about their visible, but superficial characteristics and becoming unhappy with their appearance, constantly comparing themselves to others (on social media and elsewhere), and striving to change themselves, even at the cost of their health and happiness.

In extreme cases, this type of behavior can become more problematic through social media, which can portray people as they want to be seen rather than as they truly are. For example, even though anorexia nervosa has causes the most deaths of any psychiatric illness, young people struggling with eating disorders due to body image dissatisfaction may create “thinspiration” websites or social media accounts, which present their illness not as a problem, but as a desirable lifestyle choice. These sites encourage peers who are struggling with similar body image dissatisfaction to succeed at their disordered eating and to ignore parents, teachers, and doctors who are trying to help them.

Taking the time to recognize and understand these issues, as you are doing with your research, will help you and others develop the critical thinking necessary to protect yourselves from being manipulated by media images and to avoid participating in the “I am cooler/sexier/ edgier and have more friends” competition that can erupt in social media. To help you further your research and understanding of how media can affect young people’s body image check out the following:

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

~ The Mediatrician