Social Media Results in Image Pressure for Teens

Posted 11/21/2016 | By HealthCorps

With the childhood and teen obesity crisis showing no signs of a downward trend, efforts to motivate teens in particular to eat healthy can be challenging.  If the teen is overweight or obese, teen weight loss is imperative for health reasons.  At the same time, it’s important not to instigate an eating disorder when trying to treat obesity in a teen.  It used to be that springtime and summer would instigate weight loss – “I want to look good in a bathing suit” syndrome.  Once summer passes, the incentive to “look better in a bathing suit” used to shift; cooler months let you layer on clothes and hide extra weight.  With the advent of social media and the pressure to constantly take selfies, the pressure to look good is pervasive and constant.  In a sense, bathing suit season is now year-round.  Is that pressure hurting our teens and fueling obesity and eating disorders?

Men and women will tell you that as the weather warms up, it’s often easy to get motivated to diet and especially to exercise, wanting to have a firm, lean figure for bathing suit season.  A six pack is no longer “just a guy thing” – it’s now a unisex desire.  With teens constantly taking somewhat revealing selfies, it is as if there’s year-round bathing suit season.  If that inspires teens to eat healthier and to exercise, that’s wonderful.  But the selfie mentality seems to actually cause an awful lot of angst among male and female teens.

Recent research seems to indicate that constantly looking at images of you and others online can harm grades and it can also make teens feel worse about their own bodies.  The review of several studies found that teens that spend significant amounts of time on social networking sites experience a maladaptive effect on their body image, with a higher risk of developing disordered eating and excessive exercise habits.

You are probably going to have a really difficult time as a parent, trying to convince your daughter to nix the selfies and limit her engagement in social networking.  And even though girls may want to look good in their selfies, the reality is also that many girls start limiting their fitness activities and engagement with exercise as they enter puberty, because they don’t like to sweat and they don’t want to risk body odor issues.  So parents need to find ways to inspire a healthy engagement with exercise (and diet) by appealing to your teen in other ways.  Is math the answer?

A 1998 study that’s been replicated over the years found that girls in bathing suits fare much more poorly on math exams.  You can read more about the experiment, but the crux of the findings were that girls are so self-conscious in bathing suits (compared to boys placed in the same circumstance), that they can’t focus well when given math problems or other tasks that require close attention and focus.  So if your daughter is keen on her academics or has a specific academic goal, you might share the study with her and appeal to her sensibilities, discussing how focus on social media and in particular selfies, may be hampering her grades.

Other kids may respond to how exercise, or exercise and diet, can improve their physical and mental strength, especially cognition, based on recent research.  Steering clear of discussions specifically about “diet and weight loss,” or “exercise and weight loss,” will help to avoid instigating eating or exercise disorders among vulnerable youth.  Battling with your kid to simply limit social media engagement may be incredibly daunting.  Focus the conversations on how social media may be affecting their academics, self-esteem and their health.

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