The Relationship Between Social Media and Body Image in Teens

by: Dr. Jennifer Salerno
Social media can have serious negative effects on your teen's body image, mental health, and more. Dr. Jennifer Salerno, Nurse Practitioner and Founder of Possibilities for Change, weighs in with tips on how parents can help support a positive body image in teens in the age of social media.
social media and body image in teens

Sadie was tormented on Facebook and Instagram. Classmates would tell the 15-year-old to kill herself. Eventually, she did. 

Texting, sharing, trolling, scrolling, you name it—teens who are sometimes dubbed the iGen or screenagers—are professionals in the social media spheres. It’s gotten easier to be cruel with the protection of a screen, and it’s gotten harder to differentiate reality from the highlight reel of a teen’s social profile. Spending hours perfecting their social identities, the pressures of social media can be overwhelming for teens and is leading to serious health issues like eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression. Striving for the “most likes” leaves teens feeling like social media defines their self-worth. 

More: Positive Body Image: 5 Steps to Get There Now

Is Social Media Really That Impactful?

social media impacts body image

In short, yes, especially on teens. Research shows that 8 to 18 year olds are engaged with some form of media about 7.5 hours each day. That’s more time than the average school day! Pair that with the removed and somewhat anonymous nature of social media interactions and you have the perfect peer pressure storm.

Why Body Image Matters

teen with negative body image

Body image isn’t just a matter of vanity, a negative body image can have a significant impact on a teen’s mental and physical health. With relentless social media feeds of “perfect” celebrities and peers, it can be hard not to draw comparisons.  Even though everyone knows these images have been highly edited, an emotional response of “not good enough” can be difficult to avoid. Recent studies show that one out of four teens report feeling stressed about how they look in posted photos and feel bad about themselves if their posts are ignored.

While some companies are trying to help combat this—like Instagram’s new “kindness camera effect,” which encourages kind comments and filters—the best course of action as a parent or supportive adult comes from establishing a strong relationship with your teen. 

Here are 3 ways you can help support a positive body image and boost self-esteem in your teen: 

mom helping teen with body image while running

  1. Exhibit respect. Talking about something teens feel they know more about than you can be difficult, so make sure to embrace this reality. Instead of starting a conversation by telling them what to do, try an approach like this: “You’re right, I didn’t grow up with social media. You have had to figure out a way to manage everything coming at you.” This will help start a conversation with them, instead of it feeling like a lecture at them.
  2. Encourage positivity. You can’t possibly filter what your teen is exposed to on social media, but you can be a positive force in their life. In fact, research shows that having a trusted adult that teens feel comfortable turning to is the single most important factor in supporting healthy behaviors and higher self-esteem. Challenging your teen to post their own positive messages—like joining in on a trend like #MondayMotivation. The more their accounts are filled with positivity, the more they can help stop the cycle of negativity.
  3. Ask, then Listen. Above all, the most important thing you can do to help your teen is to ask about their social media channels or posts, then listen when they share what they are thinking or feeling. Following your teen’s response to the example statement in #2 above, you may ask “What are some ways you can manage your social media to decrease your feelings of stress?” Actively listen and offer other suggestions (if needed). Knowing that you are really listening to what they are saying, even if you sometimes disagree, helps to build a strong, trusting relationship with your teen.  

Despite our best efforts it’s impossible to control everything teens do or see on social media, or in the real world for that matter! But with these simple steps you can provide positive reinforcement and ensure they have a safe, supportive space waiting for them at home. 

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