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Mary Beth Nierengarten is a freelance medical writer with over 25 years of experience. Her work appears regularly in a number of print and online publications.
Visually oriented social media platforms created by their peers can have a significant negative impact on adolescents’ body image.
Most adolescents are active users of social media, a newer type of media that differs from mass media in that users are both consumers and creators of the content. Visually oriented social media platforms are particularly popular among teenagers. These platforms can have a significant impact on adolescents’ body images, mirroring the effect mass media has had on prioritizing certain body types as more attractive than others (eg, extreme thinness, large breasts for women, and V-shaped body for men) and the impact this has had on the development of poor body image and associated eating disorders.
To help pediatricians understand the strong influence of social media on body image and eating disorders in adolescents, and ways they can help teenagers in this new pressure-cooker digital space, Megan A Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH, associate professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington, Seattle, discussed why visually oriented social media platforms are so popular with adolescents and examined how social media may contribute to the development, severity, and prolonged illness course of eating disorders in a session titled “#Selfie esteem: Social media’s influence on adolescent body image and eating disorders“ at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition on September 18.
The added pressure of social media on influencing body image for adolescents is heightened by the content on these visually-oriented social media platforms that are created by one’s peers, Moreno explained. “This can present a significant source of influence, as the ‘role models’ adolescents see on social media are often peers,” she noted. “This can present a pressure to achieve a certain body appearance, as there is the pressure for teens to generate content and post pictures of themselves.”
In her presentation, Moreno also reviewed the existing literature on how the type and quantity of media exposure affects body image among adolescents and described the connection between media exposure, body image, and eating disorders.
Moreno ended her presentation with specific ways that pediatricians can help adolescents counter the media-generated messages on body image. These include providing adolescents with information during clinical visits on what normal and healthy body weight is, which often doesn’t cohere with the media standard, and supporting parents by encouraging them to also underscore with their adolescents that body types seen in the media do not reflect the norms and that healthy and beautiful bodies come in all types.
In addition, Moreno emphasized the need for clinicians to educate medical students and trainees on how to talk to adolescents about weight while addressing the importance of accepting different body types. Finally, and importantly, she encouraged pediatricians to look at the magazines and other material in their clinic waiting rooms that may contribute to the body image message promoted by the media that the pediatrician is trying to counter.
“Social media offers both new challenges and new opportunities to promote a healthy body image,” Moreno said, underscoring that pediatricians can use the information adolescents are obtaining from these platforms to educate and reinforce the message that media-generated body images often are not the norm and that healthy and beautiful bodies come in many shapes and sizes.
Social media platforms allow young people to create meaningful, positive identities for themselves through sharing of profile pictures, postings about activities, and videos. Getting “likes” from peers reinforces adolescents’ images and messages and sense of self. Teenagers can even “try on” different identities-a common theme at this age. Peer networks are important in adolescence, and social media allows those connections to grow and flourish. Importantly, social media allows teenagers with special needs, whether LGBTQ youth or those with disabilities (among others), to find a like-minded community.
However, just as traditional media, specifically television, can pose health risks for youth, so can the images and messages found on social media. Teenagers compare themselves with peers on social media, and upward comparison may lead a vulnerable youth to feel dissatisfied with his or her own life, appearance, or shape. As in Dr Moreno’s talk, concerns are emerging about the possible negative impact of social media messages on body image and disordered eating. Other health concerns include the effect of alcohol advertising on youth alcohol use, as well as the negative effects of electronic exposure before bedtime on the quantity and quality of sleep. Cyberbullying is a new concern, now common with the rise in popularity of social media.
Both parents and pediatricians should understand that social media use offers tremendous benefits for young users in terms of connection and identity formation. I firmly believe that use of social media (whatever platform) should NOT be demonized; it is here to stay and there will only be more platforms and more enticement with the passage of time.
That said, social media images and messages may be harmful for some teenagers who are less comfortable with their appearance, shape, or identity. Inoculating adolescents with honest and caring information and feedback about healthy bodies can counter the images viewed and shared on social media.
Pediatricians should be frank with teenagers about the effects of social media and the real dangers it can have on health, such as body image and eating disorders as well as sleep problems and effects of cyberbullying. They should encourage teenagers and their parents to devise and adhere to a Family Media Use Plan regarding usage. Along with limiting time spent on social media, kids should be counseled about the importance of balancing time online with other activities, such as participation in sports, clubs, and creative pursuits.
Keeping in mind that social medic connection IS important in teenagers’ lives, pediatricians should also encourage parents to help their adolescents become media savvy and literate. In addition, pediatricians should remind parents that they must be positive role models by putting their own devices away and engaging in active, creative, social face-to-face encounters.
-Margorie J Hogan, MD, is a pediatrician practicing in the Department of Pediatrics at Hennepin County Medical Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a professor of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, West Bank Campus, Minneapolis.