Young athletes, social media, and body image issues


Cassidy Foley Davelaar, DO, FAAP, CAQSM, shares some of the findings from her research on how social media affects young athletes and their body image at the 2023 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition.


Contemporary Pediatrics:

Can you explain the update you provided at AAP 2023, regarding the effects body image, social media, and gender roles can have on sports?

Cassidy Foley Davelaar, DO, FAAP, CAQSM:

I'm speaking on sports nutrition, and how it affects our children. It's a topic that's near and dear to my heart, of course, because we know the benefits that athletes can gain from being physically active. And so, some of those benefits are improving mental well being, resilience. We all want our kids to grow up and be really gritty. [Other benefits include] muscle strength, endurance, physical fitness, as well as the social benefits that you gain from being involved in physical activity. We have a saying in medicine, that exercise is medicine. And so we try to encourage physical activity as much as possible. We also note that when kids get involved in sports, and they create a habit, as they get older, they will carry on the habit into adolescence and adulthood. And so if they're losing that skill when they're a child, then we worry that they're not the carryover into adolescence or later adulthood. Despite all the benefits, unfortunately, there is that significant drop out from sports. So, around 70% of kids are dropping out of sports by age 13. And females are dropping out of sports 2 times greater of males. Previous studies have cited a loss of interest as the reason for dropout, ours did as well. And after a lack of interest in sports specialization and injury, 4 studies have cited that coaches, competitiveness, and body image issues were reasons for quitting. When we compare males to females, we found that girls were also more likely to drop out like previous research has noted and girls fared significantly worse in regards to body image questions. They felt less confident in their body, they felt more unattractive, like they had more unattractive features that made them nervous while they're playing sports. And they're more likely to compare themselves to images on social media. Out of the 20% that quit, 62% said that they definitely agree that they often compaired their ability to play sports to those that they see on TV, movies, social media apps. And sadly, we saw 45% that thought about and 25% have actually tried to change the way that they look to fit the appearance that they feel would be better suited for sports. So, we came to the conclusion from those findings that there are some future directions that we could take the study, of course, we want to do more in the future. Social media is not going anywhere. So how can we work with it? And how can we find outlets where there are more healthy, inclusive, and diverse images for these kids to relate to. And maybe we can show these kids more where these professionals came from, like they weren't professionals from the beginning. So showing them their steps, where they came from. And we also thought maybe children's hospitals can join with coaches or work with coaches to try and create a less competitive, more inclusive game or playing field for these kids. Less about wins and losses and more about physical health benefits, and promoting less of the ideal body image and more of an inclusive body image for sports. And then lastly, you really need to support our female athletes if they're jumping out of sports so quickly. So, the physical benefits are the same for females. And so we really need to stay supporting them in all of their sports endeavors and being very body positive.

Contemporary Pediatrics:

What are the potential downstream effects of regarding body image? Are there signs to be aware of to help identify a student-athlete that could be struggling?

Foley Davelaar:

I think it's shocking. So, we know studies that 70% of athletes that are involved in more aesthetic sports, like more dances, cheerleading, things like that, have been disordered eating. And we know that disordered eating or energy deficiency, is very poor for females and males in the future for their athletic career. So, trying to promote more of a positive, eating healthy, and also body image is very important. I think there's something else that I've learned along the way is that it's your more stereotypical person could actually be suffering the most, that a lot of times the people who even fit the mold from the outside are struggling the most of achieving that or staying in that image, to also regard those as needing attention as well.

Contemporary Pediatrics:

How can pediatricians make a difference in a patient that is struggling with body image?

Foley Davelaar:

It is a team approach. So, getting involved in the parents, the coaches, usually there's a dietitian involved and psychiatry as well, so that multiple people can come in and kind of address it at the same time. I think that's the best approach to it.

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