Social Media on Body Image: A Question of Comparison

Learn how media impacts your teen’s body image and what you can do about it

Words by
Joseph Pratt

MAY 25, 2022

Social Media on Body Image: A Question of Comparison

Learn how media impacts your teen’s body image and what you can do about it

The average screen time teenagers spend on activities other than the time spent on schoolwork has increased to 7.7 hours a day since the pandemic.

Over 80% of young people say they use social media “daily” or “almost constantly”. [8]

With mental health issues in young people continuing to rise, including significant increases in body dysmorphia and eating disorders, parents are right to ask what effect social media has on their kids.

The Broad Effects of Social Media on Teens

Excessive social media use has been linked to various mental health conditions, such as low self-esteem, lack of patience, problems regulating emotions, antisocial behavior, emotional distress, depression, skewed body image, and eating disorders. [10]

Unfortunately, social media companies don’t seem to be altering course based on these findings.

Social media platforms maximize:
  • The time users spend on the app
  • The social reach of their platforms
  • How often users engage with the app
Children are left feeling:
  • Uneasy about the amount of time spent on social media
  • Afraid of social exclusion if they take a break
  • Pressure to alter their behavior to get validation and self-worth from the app (5Rights Foundation, 2021, p. 22)

How Does Social Media Affect Body Image?

Numerous studies suggest that social media has direct negative effects on body image. [1] [4] [7] [9] And the risks are higher for teenage girls. [8]

The effects of image-based social media platforms (TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram) are clear and significant. [7]

The bad news is that these are exactly the platforms becoming increasingly popular with kids, with 72% of teens now regularly using Instagram and 69% on Snapchat. [2]

young girl measuring her waist in the mirror

The Damaging Effects of Sexual Images on Teen Body Image

The pervasiveness of sexual imagery on these platforms makes them particularly dangerous.

Exposure to sexualized images is problematic for several reasons, including heightened objectification and viewing people as objects to be used rather than respected. 

When girls see pictures of sexualized women, this results in self-objectification. [9]

These pictures and videos change how we see ourselves and make us increasingly aware of how we compare to others.

Image-based social media platforms still promote the sexualization of women more than men, which may make young women more at risk for negative body image.

However, young men aren’t immune to self-objectification and comparison. Studies show that men are becoming more sexualized on social media as well, and scholars predict the same destructive outcomes. [9]

Comparison is the thief of joy.

—Theodore Roosevelt

Social Media & Comparison

Social media negatively affects body image because it leads to comparison. [8]

Comparison is the consideration of the similarities or dissimilarities between two people. It can quickly lead to self-resentment, self-criticism, and self-dissatisfaction. 

Of course, comparison was around long before social media, but the comparisons people make on social media platforms are worse than in-person correlations in at least three ways:

  • They are made outside of a person’s social group and demographic
  • They are made with impossible beauty standards
  • They provide direct feedback (i.e., likes, comments, follows)

We’ll explore all three facets of social media comparisons below:

Comparison to adults

Teens compare themselves to people in different developmental stages through their social media accounts. [7]

Comparing themselves to their peers is damaging enough, but it’s worse when they compare themselves to images of fully developed adults.

Young people begin to internalize unrealistic standards about their appearance despite having fewer years of development and different body shapes. 

two young women back to back feeling insecure

Comparison with false reality

No one can match the doctored images on social media, but teens (and many adults) have not developed the resilience to recognize how real-life has been edited out of the content.

Influencers often use heavily edited, filtered, or outlier images that are not representative of the average person. Photoshop, airbrushing, and “facetuning” are widely employed, leading to altered faces and bodies. 

Notwithstanding the enormous followings actors, models, and influencers enjoy, the extremely rich and famous make up only a small fraction of the population. Their standard of physique and beauty often comes from a whole team of makeup artists, professional photographers, and editors. 

Even if a child were to notice these factors—though unlikely—their brain would still struggle to internalize the difference. This is where body dissatisfaction can set in.

Comparison fuels chasing “likes”

Finally, social media exacerbates comparison because it provides direct and immediate feedback such as likes, comments, and shares. This phenomenon is called “social proof” when we look to external validation to measure our worth.

When young people feel receive less feedback than their peers or famous people, their self-worth can decline. [7]

To get more likes, comments, and shares of their own, they begin to imitate the “successful” posts they see.

This often means they may begin to apply filters, show more skin, or start extreme diets to look like the people they view, admire, or envy. [1]

Chasing likes is futile because what they’re seeing is not real, and they will never be able to match this false standard.

teen boy biting his nails while looking at his phone

Social Media & Eating Disorders

Body dissatisfaction degrades mental health. It can result in teenagers feeling insecure, self-conscious, anxious, or depressed. Furthermore, kids who feel they do not measure-up are afraid to take healthy social risks and spend more time “in their heads” than those with a healthy self-concept. [7]

It can also lead to eating disorders.

Many people recovering from eating disorders can trace their beginnings to social media. [1]

What starts as a search for weight loss strategies can lead to content that encourages extreme dieting. The next step can be joining groups or following pages that encourage eating disorders. [1]

Read the article Teen Eating Disorders: The Impact of Dangerous Sites to learn more about this danger.

Six Strategies for Parents Worried About Their Teen’s Body Image

As parents, we can mitigate the negative impacts of social media. Even though there is no easy solution to battle negative body image, knowing that we have power can be encouraging.

Experts recommend six strategies for helping your teen embrace body positivity:

1. Talk about media choices

We can use social media to engage our kids in conversations about the media they consume.

Consider discussing content that portrays violence, substance abuse, body image, or sexuality. [5]

Ask them how content like this makes them feel. How does it affect how they see themselves and others?

What are some strategies they use to protect themselves? Who do they contact for help, and why? 

When we ask these questions, we can listen with love and support and make space for children to share their actual experiences. [8]

Despite being inexperienced or sometimes needing help, kids often feel capable and crave respect. 

teen girl talking to her mom on a couch

2. Teach digital media literacy skills

Kids are safer when we empower them instead of sheltering them. We can do this by teaching them digital literacy skills. [5]

Digital media literacy is the skill set needed to thrive in the digital world.

It includes self-awareness, understanding intent, internet safety, personal boundaries, online etiquette, skepticism, and empathy. 

These skills can help a child feel less scared and make better decisions when confronted with adverse content online.

We don’t need to be experts to teach our kids this critical skill set. There are resources online that can help, like CommonSense Media’s Resource Center. Even a general Google search can provide helpful information.

3. Model a healthy body image

How we treat and use our bodies can send our kids subtle non-verbal messages. We can model body positivity when we treat our bodies well, speak highly of ourselves, and focus on the habits that help us feel good rather than just look good.

None of us have done this perfectly, and that’s okay. It’s never too late to tell kids we want to turn over a new leaf. We can even enlist their help by asking them to point out when we inadvertently talk negatively about ourselves.

By showing what it looks like to love oneself, we can help children be comfortable in their own skin.

mother and daughter smiling at each other over breakfast

4. Demonstrate healthy phone use

One of the chief predictors of problematic teen social media and phone use is the way we use our phones. [6]

In his December 2021 health advisory on protecting teen mental health, the Surgeon General called for parents to be the “best role model [they] can be.”

He encouraged parents to model how to step away from tech and social media.

Beyond simply modeling healthy phone use, he talked about how important it is to protect our mental health—seeking help when needed, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating balanced meals, and maintaining regular routines. [8]

We can always shift our ideas in a healthier direction and show kids that we are willing to break habits that have caused problems.

5. Encourage healthy relationships with others

Children need supportive adults and uplifting friends to develop resiliency. [8]

Parent-child relationships are strengthened by spending time doing things kids enjoy.

We can build their confidence by asking for their help, praising their efforts, and expressing gratitude.

Provide help when needed, and consider trying hobbies together that are new to both of you.

young woman hugging older woman from behind both smiling

6. Look for signs of distress in your child

A child experiencing stress can show symptoms like moodiness, withdrawal, anger, less interest in activities they used to enjoy, poorer school performance, secretiveness with digital media, or changes in eating and sleeping habits. [8]

Being aware of the stressors in a child’s life and on the lookout for warning signals can better position us to help them. 

We can evaluate how much time teens spend online. Is their screen time displacing opportunities for healthy activities like seeing friends, reading, sleeping, physical activities, and extracurricular events?

Is the digital content adolescents consume meaningful and constructive? How would they answer that question themselves?

Moving Forward

Remember, you don’t have to do it all on your own.

If you are worried about your teen’s self-image but aren’t sure what to do, don’t be afraid to seek help from doctors, teachers, school guidance counselors, parents of your teen’s friends, and other family members.

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