40% of young people who consider themselves ugly link this impression to their presence on social networks according to internal Facebook documents. Instagram is believed to be responsible for teens’ misinterpretation of themselves. Parents can chat with their children to improve their use of social networks.
An article published in The Conversation written by Gemma Sharp, A research fellow at NHMRC, Jasmine Fardouly, a UNSW researcher, Marylin Blomberg, senior lecturer in law at the University of Australia, Tama Leaver, professor of internet studies at Curtin University, and Isabel Gerrard, senior lecturer in digital media at the University of Sheffield.
That Instagram can have negative effects on self-perception should not surprise researchers working on the issue: a survey on the impact of social networks published five years ago established the existence of a link between their use, both by adults and young people, and body image problems or eating disorders.
However, this study showed that it was not necessarily the time spent on social networks, but rather specific activities such as viewing, retouching, and publishing idealized photos that were problematic.
Photos or selfies posted by celebrities, influencers, even friends on the networks are indeed carefully staged and embellished with filters. Far from being a realistic reflection of a person’s appearance, most of these photos promote goals that are impossible to achieve. People spontaneously compare their appearance to these retouched photos and conclude that they are much less attractive.
In addition to hurting body image and morale in general, such comparisons lead to an increase in unhealthy eating and exercise behaviors. The impact of such comparisons is particularly much worse than those we practice when we meet other people in reality. Indeed, on social networks, people feel that others are significantly more attractive than them, while they only find them a little more attractive when they see them in front of them.
Places of sociability
Other studies highlight the many positive aspects of social networks which, like older online spaces, such as forums and discussion groups, are essential places where people with eating disorders share their experiences and seek comfort. This only adds to the complexity of the current debates.
In addition, networks are a central element of young people’s social life; they allow them to establish and maintain friendships. In times of lockdown and Covid-19, this form of communication has proven vital.
As social media activities are part of young people’s identity, parents should try, as much as possible, to better understand these practices rather than systematically criticizing them. Parents who do not know how social networks work can ask their children to guide them on the different platforms to be a little more aware of the content offered to their offspring.
Such exchanges pave the way for a better knowledge of social networks, the mastery of which necessarily requires an ability to evaluate, analyze and question the messages and images found there.
Research has shown that social media education has a positive impact on young people’s body image. Parents can discuss with their children filters, retouch images and videos, and explain to them that what we see online is not always a reflection of reality.
Learning to chase away negative thoughts
Parents can also lead by example by avoiding appearance-centered conversations in life and on networks, including discussions focused on their bodies or desire to lose weight. The studies are formal: parents have a strong influence on how young people perceive their bodies and talk about them. It is good that they make benevolent statements about their appearance or that of others, and that they do not congratulate their children only for their physical qualities.
By helping young people make their social media experiences more positive and rewarding, parents have a key role to play. Ask young people how they feel when they are on social media. If following a particular account makes them look bad for themselves, tell them to unsubscribe or mute that person. Instead, encourage them to follow accounts that are interested in something other than appearance: sports, travel, arts, humor, etc.
Other studies have found that searching for and seeing positive content about physical appearance on platforms will tend to improve our overall mood. Parents can also help their children develop a wide range of coping strategies to counter negative thoughts that come to them using social media or face-to-face meetings.
Like showing self-compassion towards your body, which research shows positive effects. The compassionate friend exercise, for example, is to tell young people, “Be as lenient with yourself as you would if your best friend told you about her bad image of her body.”
Some platforms, including Instagram, allow their users to open multiple accounts. This can be useful when young people see too much content that makes them unhappy. Research attests to the positive effects of holding several accounts, including pseudonyms, on social networks, because they can express different facets of their personality in this way.