Children and teens have always been concerned about fitting in and being accepted by their peers. At one point, in the not too distant past, peer groups were confined to school classmates, neighbors, and friends. When it came to appearance, kids had a fairly restricted group of people for comparison. Then, television, magazines, movies and advertisements brought a new standard of beauty. And kids started to measure themselves against the glamorous faces and bodies seen there. The influence of media and body image today is significantly more far reaching than at any point in history. Thanks to social media, every day brings an unlimited supply of images, which send both active and passive messages about appearance. The advent of the app world brought the realm of image sharing to smart phones everywhere. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and many other apps make the sharing of videos, texts, voice messages, and photos available at the touch of a button. The selfie generation knows how to snap a picture from their best angle, make quick in-application edits to the photo, and distribute across multiple platforms, all while changing classes. What is the Effect of all this 24/7 Electronic Access and Information? Using Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and more, celebrities keep in touch with their fan base through frequent sharing of images, videos and messages. Often those messages are simply a new form of advertising, filled with impossible to attain physical standards. Used to tout beauty and body improvement products that promise to do anything from eliminate acne, to promote weight loss, or to “train your waist” to pull into a tight figure eight style; coupled with clickable links to purchase those products. This direct connection to celebrity is unprecedented. Anyone can become an instant friend by clicking a “Like” button. Playing into the vulnerabilities of most youth, this exposure influences kids, tweens and teens to try and achieve the lifestyles portrayed by those they admire. Without the ability to understand that most of the photos they see have been edited and modified to promote an impossible body image, adolescents are doomed to constantly feel an inability to measure up to the standards, putting self-esteem at risk. What Impact Does the Gap Between Reality and Social Media Have? Low self-esteem can lead to increasingly risky behaviors in the quest to feel accepted. Many apps available today allow people to send “temporary” messages, texts, photos or videos. Believing they are protected by the privacy and short lifespan of the photos, teens are seduced into sending increasingly risqué pictures, hoping for positive feedback. The problem is that nothing is really temporary. Even as these applications have worked to tighten up the security of the information, nothing can prevent anyone from taking a screenshot of the image and redistributing it across the internet, texting it to other friends or worse. Seeking affirmation and trusting that no one else will see their temporary image; teens may find the opposite of what they expected. They may well become the victim of a cyber-bullying attack, exposing their private messages and photos and causing significant embarrassment and possible self-harm. Eating disorders and the media have shared a connection for years as children and teens try to emulate the bodies of celebrities and models. Today’s constant bombardment of idealized imagery fuels the risk, and can easily start youth on the road towards an eating disorder. The potential exists for social networks to do more than damage self-esteem. Some online social groups can actively encourage your child to engage in disordered eating behaviors and provide advice on how to deceive parents. Parents struggle to stay ahead of the flood of media influence on their kids. The well-known phrase “the best defense is a good offense” is sage advice. Some basic, but effective tips include:
- Actively engaging in real face time with your kids
- Enforcing “no screen time” rules for family meals (No means NO for everyone, parents included)
- Getting involved in physical activities together such as hiking, camping, or just taking an evening walk without phones in hand
- Encouraging your child’s involvement in team sports, band, dance, color guard or other groups. This provides your child with an immediate peer group focused on a common goal and reduces the feeling of isolation
Finally, get to know your child’s friends. Let your house be the hang out place and stay engaged, with your ears open to the opportunities for real talk. Before you know it, the pendulum of influence can swing back in your direction, allowing you to participate in the dialogue about real personal value and healthy boundaries. If you are concerned that your child may already be in trouble with the development of eating disorder behaviors, don’t hesitate to contact a specialist who can help you assess, diagnose, and provide treatment if needed. You aren’t in this alone. Please call (928) 668-0906 to speak with a knowledgeable expert today.