This generation of parents isn’t the first to worry over the impact media may have on their teen’s body image. For decades, adolescents have been exposed to overly sexualized and sometimes fictitious renderings of the human body on television and in print. Today’s parents may worry even more, however, and for good reason. Easy access to the Internet exposes 21st century teens to a constant stream of media influence, including potentially harmful messages about acceptable and “preferable” body types.
Whether your teen goes online to shop, socialize, or play games, chances are he or she will be barraged with online advertisements peddling a variety of different products and services. While many oppose the practice of marketing to children in general, we can all agree that advertisements featuring Photoshopped tween and teen models do little to propagate healthy body images for our children. According to Common Sense Media, teens are spending seven-plus hours a day in front of a screen. That’s a long time for adolescents to be exposed to advertisements that play on their emotions and desire to fit in.
Edited Reality in Selfies and Social Media
Social media has given us all a new way of expressing ourselves, teens included. But on platforms like Facebook, for instance, this self-expression is often more of an edited reality than an accurate representation. When teens spend hours capturing, filtering, and editing the perfect shot and then waiting for the likes and comments to roll in, they’re conditioning themselves to become reliant on others for their sense of worth and wellbeing. Conversely, teens who scroll through their newsfeed and see picture after picture of perfect, smiling selfies may start to question their own appearance or happiness.
Apps and Games Promoting Unhealthy Values and Lifestyles
There’s been plenty of public outcry regarding violence in video games, but parents need to look closer at the applications kids are using to ensure that the underlying messages of even the most innocent looking games are indeed harmless. Take It Girl, for instance, a game which prompts players to collect fashionable clothes and handsome boyfriends in an effort to become “the hottest girl in town.” A similar app called Star Girl, which is popular amongst tween and teen girls, features provocative avatars who spend their days shopping, going out with hot guys and pursuing one of three available careers: singer, actress, and model. The availability and popularity of games like these underscore the need for parents to monitor not only the quantity of screen time kids are consuming, but the quality as well.
Websites Pushing Eating Disorders
One of the biggest concerns regarding teens and self-image issues is the possibility that they will develop dangerous eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia as a result of the pressure to be thin. While the Internet didn’t create the problem, it certainly doesn’t appear to be helping, especially when you consider the rise of websites that actually encourage eating disorder behaviors such as fasting, binging, and purging. Commonly referred to as “Pro-Ana” (Pro- Anorexia), “Pro-Mia” (Pro-Bulimia), and “Pro-ED” (Pro-Eating Disorder) sites, these online platforms provide “support” in the worst way by idolizing super-thin body images and encouraging members to sacrifice food for attractiveness.
Risks for Teens
Aside from making teens wish they looked more like Photoshop-enhanced celebrities, what real impact does media’s portrayal of the human body have on adolescents? Unfortunately, the risks may be greater than you think. Vulnerable tweens and teens may become more anxious or depressed about their appearance and/or popularity after being exposed to such images. This could lead them to participate in other worrisome online behaviors such as cyber self-harm or using anonymous question-answer apps like Ask.fm to seek reassurance from strangers.
Tips for Parents
Today’s parents have the difficult job of making sure that their kids are able to enjoy the benefits of digital media while shielding them from harmful content, including games, websites, and advertisements that promote unhealthy body images. Here are a few tips for striking the balance:
- Start early. Studies suggest that children as young as age five can be negatively impacted by media messages.
- Teach media literacy. Encourage critical thinking when it comes to how girls, boys, moms, dads, etc. are portrayed in the media.
- Practice co-viewing and look for teachable moments to discuss unrealistic portrayals of television and Internet personas.
- Be a good role model. Exemplify to your teen what it means to have a healthy body image.
- Block websites and apps that discourage a healthy body image.