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Body Image in an Age of Selfies & Social Media

We’ve long worried about the challenges kids and teens face forming healthy body images from the unrealistic images depicted in the media. There’s an established history with the media bombaring kids and teens with unrealistic, sexualised, and stereotypical images and messages about bodies. Today, given the popularity of social media and selfies, these concerns are amplified. Both traditional media and social media are promoting and idealising unhealthy body images and it’s having a profound impact on kids’ and teens’ self-esteem as a result.

Before the advent of social media and selfies adults worried about the impractical ideals that photoshopped magazine models and celebrities imposed on our kids. In years gone by, young girls and women idolised Elle McPherson, Cindy Crawford (you can see I was a child of the 80s) and other celebrities and models that graced the magazines and newspapers of our time. For boys, it was sports stars who they watched on TV or read about in print. It was often accepted that these celebrities’ and sports stars’ images were enhanced, filtered and edited, or that these stars’ bodies weren’t considered ‘average’.

However today, it’s not just celebrities and models who are enhanced. Now, the peers that kids sit next to at school, or on the bus are photoshopped too! Their peers are literally airbrushed every day too. Today’s kids are growing up bombarded by filtered and photoshopped images. The media our kids are consuming and using today (everything from their social media feeds, to the games and apps they use, to the movies and music clips they’re watching) are saturated with edited and filtered photos of unrealistic portrayals and alarming messages about bodies. Kids are no longer passive consumers of media; they’re creating and sharing their own media and being subject to the (often harsh) judgement that comes with that. Apps such as Hot or Not or Instagram Beauty Pageants tell our young people that body image matters. A lot!

It’s no longer just celebrities and sports stars depicting unhealthy and unrealistic body images- kids’ classmates and neighbour next door are edited and filtered too!

This focus on their physical appearance has resulted in some concerning behaviours. Young people are now using editing apps to enhance their appearance by whitening their teeth, erasing their pimples, putting a sparkle in their eyes, or pouting their lips.Many tweens and teens reach reflexively for beautifying filters and image altering apps such as Facetune or Retouch Me before uploading their selfies to social media, or sharing with their friends. This is having a profound impact on kids’ and teens’ body image and on their subsequent self-esteem.


Did you know…?

// Body image develops early in childhood, not in adolescence. Children form their ideal body image by 8 years of age.

// Body image is influenced by media, peers and parents.

// Exposure to ‘traditional’ media is a risk factor for developing body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. It’s not just social media to blame.

// More than 50% of girls and ⅓ of boys aged 6–8 indicate their ideal body is thinner than their current body.

//Body image impacts boys too (it’s not just a female issue)- male toy action figures exceed even that of the biggest bodybuilders.

Sources: Common Sense Research

Why are kids and teens so vulnerable?

Growing up in an age of selfies and social media is a perfect storm for our kids and their self-esteem. The combined weight of rapid brain development (their limbic, emotional brain, grows at a more rapid rate than their frontal lobe, which is the logical part of their brain), their natural vulnerability to be sensitive to the ways that their physical body is changing, their need for external validation, their transition from the family unit to peer groups and a tendency to compare themselves with their peers forms perfect storm for poor self-esteem. “She’s so pretty. He’s so buffed. She’s always on holidays. I’ll never be that popular/pretty/lucky/talented/successful…”

// Brain development- the reward centre of the brain, the striatum releases dopamine when viewing images online, particularly their own images on social media. We know that dopamine hijacks the logical part of the brain called the ‘prefrontal cortex’, so they find it hard to make logical decisions.

// Mirror neurons– kids and teens have mirror neurons meaning that their brain is hard-wired to imitate. This is a concern if they’re consuming media that portrays unrealistic or unhealthy body images and adults aren’t helping them to understand that these are often unrealistic or unattainable.

// Peer acceptance– a normal rite of passage for kids as they transition to adolescence is to shift away from the family unit and more towards their peer group. This means that they’re often looking for validation. Their self-importance and self-esteem is shaped by likes and comments online. Teens, particularly girls are seeking and subverting approval online via social media. A Common Sense Survey Called  Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image found that many young people fret about how they’re perceived online. 35% of girls are worried about people tagging them in unattractive photos, 22% feel bad about themselves if their photos are ignored (i.e. insufficient likes- many other kids simply delete the photos that don’t have sufficient likes or comments within 15 minutes) and 27% claim they feel stressed about how they look in posted photos.

// Exposure to unrealistic body images– Common Sense Media conducted a study on body image and found that 87% of female TV characters aged 10 to 17 are below average in weight 1

Digital impact on kids and teens

// Mental health issues- at the time of publication, there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove that social media ‘causes’ mental health issues. Put simply, there’s insufficient research that proves causation. However, there are ample studies that show that there is a correlation between young people with mental health issues and their social media habits. This is not to suggest that social media may not be exacerbating some young people’s mental health issues. Unhealthy social media use for young people who already have anxiety or depression may make them feel even less valuable as they compare themselves to their peers. Social media may, in some situations, pull vulnerable kids closer to a diagnosable mental health issue if they have an existing issue.

// Compare and despair- Kids’ and teens’ self-esteem can take a hit when they start comparing themselves and their reality to the curated, highlight reel of their peers (or influencers). Sadly, social media is designed for such comparison. One study found that frequently viewing selfies led to decreased self-esteem and decreased life satisfaction 2. Another study found that girls who spend more time looking at pictures on Facebook reported higher weight dissatisfaction and self-objectification 3. The problem with social media and selfies is that kids are scrutinised for their appearance and they also scrutinise others too (so it becomes a vicious cycle).

// Overemphasis on their physical appearance– Educators and health professionals tell me anecdotally that they’re seeing increasing numbers of young people suffer from ‘selfie dysmorphia’, which is also sometimes called Snapchat dysmorphia. Young people are trying to imitate the bodies that are shared on the media. The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons found that 42% of surgeons were asked to perform procedures for improved selfies and pictures on social media platforms 4.


What can parents & educators do to promote a positive body image and healthy self-esteem?

// Teach your child critical literacy skills- just like kids and teens apply filters to their images, teach them to apply a filter and be critical and discerning when consuming media.  Talk early and often. How has this photo been doctored or enhanced? What’s the purpose of this ad? Do you think a beautifying app has been used (hint- you can see when an app such as Retouch Me has been used as often flat walls have curves in their surface #true).  Find positive and healthy role models.

// Be a good model– no, not that type of model (your kids don’t need to see their mum or dad airbrushed!).  Be a good role model. Be mindful of what you’re saying about your body and other people’s physical appearance.

// Focus on function over form- focus less on their physical appearance and more on what their bodies can accomplish. Be mindful of commenting on their physical appearance too often.

// Minimise social media @ night– kids’ and teens’ logical brain, their prefrontal cortex, switches off at night and their amygdala, their emotional brain, switches on. They’re much more likely to have heightened emotional responses to their social media posts at night, than other times of the day. They’re also less likely to think critically and analytically about what they’re watching or consuming at night.


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1 https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/children-teens-media-and-body-image

2 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0736585315301350

3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24237288



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