There’s no doubt that social media has become a staple of social interaction, particularly in the world of adolescents. While it seems like a fun way to share photos and stay connected, we need to understand the kind of subliminal and overt messages teens are getting. In the past few years, we have seen a rise in “influencers” and celebrity presence on social media, particularly on the popular app Instagram. These people are usually young, thin, traditionally attractive women who are paid to promote certain products on their accounts. The idea behind “influencers” is that their appearance and lifestyle are so desirable that others will want to use the products that they do to feel desirable themselves. The issue with this is that the target audience is adolescent girls and young women who are idealizing these highly made-up, retouched, professionally photographed people and thinking that what they are seeing is attainable for an everyday teen.
A recent study shows that exposure to social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram increases body image issues. This study surveyed girls between the ages of 13 and 15 about their internet and social media use and found that exposure to social media was highly correlated with body dissatisfaction, body surveillance and drive for thinness (Tiggemann & Slater, 2013). Seeing as exposure alone can cause young girls to feel poorly about their appearance, the addition of promotional products that are meant to help you achieve the body that you want is especially enticing. Instagram, more than other social media platforms, is viewed as a highlight reel of your life and where you post your best photos of yourself. For this reason, even when celebrities post seemingly casual selfies, much more work has gone into that photo than we think. This can be incredibly damaging to young girls who compare themselves to teenage celebrities who appear to be their peers when in reality they are representing and unrealistic and harmful standard.
There are real dangers in not knowing what is real and what is manufactured when viewing people that you think are your peers. Social media, unlike traditional print media, allows the viewer to be involved and interact. This includes posting their own photos with the possibility that many people will see them. A recent study found that young women have developed a heightened awareness of how they might appear on social media and it impacts thoughts and behaviors offline as well (Choukas-Bradley et al., 2019). This means that young women and girls are thinking about their appearance no only in the moment, but considering the possibility for a photo-op and how they might appear on social media. Research shows a connection between this hyper-awareness of social media appearance with low body image, high body comparison, and depressive symptoms. In certain situations, this kind of body comparison and desire to look like celebrities and influencers on social media can lead girls to develop eating disorders (Mabe et al., 2014). This shows that there are real consequences to social media consumption and participation and it is impacting adolescents.
Instagram is taking some first steps to combat this by announcing that they will restrict the advertising for dieting products, either to people above the age of 18 or in some cases by removing the ad entirely. They are also removing the “like” feature which, while controversial amongst Instagram enthusiasts, should have some positive repercussions for user mental health. “Likes” were functioning as reinforcement for posting certain types of photos, and also a motivator to make sure you look your best in every photo you post. They also were seen as a status symbol, the more "likes" a person got the more liked they must have been. Hopefully, this removal will change the way people think about what they post. Even with these measures being taken, there is still a lot of harmful content out there that can be hurting your teenagers. Here are some tips for how to engage with your teenager about social media:
By: Camille Ginsburg
Camille is a graduate student completing her Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the University of Denver and a registered psychotherapist in the state of Colorado. Camille received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Colorado College. She has experience working with adolescents who have experienced trauma and related mental health problems. Camille's areas of interest include depression, anxiety, trauma and mental health issues related to objectification. Camille is currently interning with the Denver Adolescent Therapy Group at Stevenson Therapy Services.
Choukas-Bradley, S., Nesi, J., Widman, L., & Higgins, M. K. (2019). Camera-ready: Young women’s appearance-related social media consciousness. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 8(4), 473–481. doi: 10.1037/ppm0000196
Mabe, A. G., Forney, K. J., & Keel, P. K. (2014). Do you “like” my photo? Facebook use maintains eating disorder risk. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 47(5), 516–523. doi: 10.1002/eat.22254
Tiggemann, M., & Slater, A. (2013). NetGirls: The Internet, Facebook, and body image concern in adolescent girls. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 46(6), 630–633. doi:10.1002/eat.22141