Body Image and Social Media

“It’s so clear that so much of it is fake. I mean I know that. But it’s like, when I am scrolling, I still don’t know that,” a teenager recently told me after a workshop at her school this past fall. She was eager to follow up on our conversation about the curated nature of social media. 

We went on to agree that there is a big gap between our cognition and our emotions when it comes to scrolling through our social feeds. On one hand, we “know” that images are curated, edited, selected, and produced. We know that these images don’t represent the reality, messiness, or fullness of our lives. And yet we still experience the emotional impact of comparisons as we scroll.

“That’s why I am careful about who I follow,” the young woman concluded. “I used to just follow anyone and everyone. I am way pickier now and I think it is helping. It just isn’t worth it.” 

A white and Black tween girl laying on their stomachs on a bed looking into a cell phone taking a selfie

“A perfect storm.”

Being bombarded with messages and images focusing on appearance and status is not new to this generation of young people. Indeed, decades of research demonstrates that exposure to narrow beauty standards is correlated with body image concerns (this includes how young people think about their physical appearance including bodies, faces, hair, eyes etc..). Whether through print, TV, or advertisements, the reality is that girls in particular have long been bombarded with messages and images convincing them that the most important thing about their identities is their physical appearance. 

Just because it’s been a longstanding toxic trend doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands and surrender with, “This is just the way things are.” Indeed, the design attributes of specific social media platforms like Instagram can exacerbate upward social comparison. Dr. Sophia Choukas-Bradley, who studies gender and adolescent mental health, notes that overall time on social media in general is not consistently connected to body image issues. But when we zoom in on upward social comparison in highly visual media, we see a much stronger relationship. Apps like Instagram may present specific challenges because they are:

  • Highly visual: Many people, especially celebrities and influencers, carefully curate their images on highly visual social platforms and even manipulate images to adhere to light skin, straight hair, thin (or muscular), able bodied and wealthy beauty standards. 
  • Quantifiable: Young people don’t have to imagine how popular someone or something is; they can see it for themselves in likes and shares. 

These attributes make it difficult for any of us to resist the urge to engage in social comparison online. But early adolescence is a uniquely vulnerable time when it comes to social media and body image. Adolescents are going through specific developmental changes including: 

  • Physical changes. Changes in body size and weight.  For most kids this makes them less like the beauty standards pushed by social media.
  • Social changes. Teens are much more susceptible to peer opinion. 
  • Cognitive changes. The capacity to think in abstract ways includes the ability to consider “imaginary audiences.” 
  • Identity changes. Social comparison is a natural process, but as young people explore their own identities and start to answer the question, “Who am I?,” social comparison goes into overdrive. 

The costs of being camera ready.

The challenge is that platforms like Instagram weren’t designed with these developmental strengths and vulnerabilities in mind. They were designed for clicks, shares, scrolls, and sales. They were also designed so that a young person’s photo can be shared widely at any moment. According to Dr. Choukas-Bradley, this mismatch can create the “perfect storm” for some young people who spend hours a day on highly visual social media. 

This storm can intensify when teens become preoccupied with producing highly curated and edited images themselves. A team of researchers recently introduced a new construct to explain the psychological impact of constantly being “camera ready.” They have found that “appearance-related social media consciousness” predicts body image concerns and depressive symptoms over time.

It’s not all bad, all the time.

Does this mean that social media is the sole cause of body image issues or disordered eating? No. Many young people benefit in important ways from the connections and community they find on these platforms. Beauty ideals are culturally constructed and many young people curate their feeds to seek healthy representation of their identities. This can be especially powerful to kids who don’t see themselves reflected in their communities or in mainstream media. Others may proactively follow influencers that depict a broad range of beauty ideals and authentic representations of their bodies and lives. We also shouldn’t discount other well known risk factors for body dissatisfaction and eating disorders in a narrow focus on social media. These include stress and trauma, racism, and food insecurity among others. For many teens, social media may be magnifying and reinforcing existing vulnerabilities we should not ignore.

What can we do?

There is a lot of important discussion right now about platform accountability and designing platforms with adolescent health and development in mind. More research on the specific ways that race and gender interact to shape young people’s self worth and body image online and offline will help us better design platforms that center young people’s diverse needs.

In the meantime though, we would be wise to follow the advice of the young person I spoke with last fall. It turns out that working to align our online activities with the things that make us feel better about ourselves and each other can buffer us from the more negative effects. Dr. Sophia Choukas-Bradley suggests that we engage young people early and often in “values-aligned social media use.” In addition to activating critical media literacy skills, she suggests activities like this one:

  1. Write down a list of all the activities that you do on social media. 
  2. Look at your list. Divide it into categories:
    • Three things that bring you lasting happiness, meaning or growth (as compared to the quick dopamine hit that comes with any kind of scrolling). 
    • Three things that are fun or enjoyable in the moment but don’t bring you lasting happiness, meaning, or growth. 
    • Three things that cause you the most stress or shame.
    • Three things that you spend the most time on.
  3. Talk about your observations (don’t skip this step). What do you notice? What is aligned? Where are there disconnects? What do you want to keep? What do you want to change?

While it may seem that we would gravitate towards the activities that generate the most lasting happiness, this isn’t always the case. There are plenty of social media activities that feel good in the moment but ultimately worsen outcomes. Identifying and reflecting on this disconnect can activate more mindful social media use. Prioritizing the activities that bring us lasting happiness or growth while limiting the destructive but alluring quick hits is key.

Stay curious. Keep talking.

Let’s be clear. Not all teens are eager to sit down with us to formally reflect on their digital lives. Consider the activity above a rough framework for the kinds of conversations we might start rather than an outline for a formal lesson. The reality is that some apps are certainly worth deleting or delaying. But the onslaught of messaging about worth, value, and appearance will not stop there. Ongoing conversations with kids about these topics are protective across activities online and offline.

Most of us know that social media doesn’t reflect real life. But it often takes ongoing conversations and reflection to really know it. And part of growing up is getting to know ourselves and our self worth well enough to be able to protect it.