Social media filters are impacting our kids’ body image, and luckily there’s something parents can do to help. We’ve got to have “the talk” with our kids about social media, and we’ve got to do it soon.
We’ve entered a deeply fraught period in which our kids are seeking body modification – surgical, fitness, and food – in pursuit of a completely inaccessible beauty ideal.
The source of this problem? Social media. Social media use is strongly associated with explosive increases in body dysmorphia and eating disorders. There are three drivers of this phenomenon:
1. Social media platforms use algorithms to maximize time spent on the platform because time spent directly equals revenue.
2. Celebrities and influencers exploit social media algorithms and use filters to gain traction (and revenue).
3. Peers seek emotional validation and social proof on social media. Most teen girls will not post a selfie without a filter.
Basically, our kids are being exposed to highly curated and heavily filtered images of “beauty,” and they find themselves coming up short with their real body, hair, and face. Social media filters are making it harder to raise kids with healthy body image.
- 34% of teenagers spend at least three hours a day scrolling on social media
- 80% of girls say they compare the way they look to other people on social media
- 24% of girls think that they don’t look good enough without photo editing
- Girls take on average up to 14 selfies in an attempt to get the right “look” before choosing one to post
What can parents do?
The facts about the dangers of social media for girls are devastating. But there is a lot that parents can do. And most parents are underutilizing their influence. We can counteract the impact of social media filters on our kids’ body image.
While about 80% of parents have the “sex talk” with kids, only 30% talk to kids about responsible social media use. Most of this comes from our own lack of knowledge and understanding about the topic and a healthy amount of pushback from kids when we challenge their preferred form of socialization.
While it would likely be better for our kids’ body image if we banned social media completely, that’s about as unrealistic as banning sex. Abstinence-only programs and policies are a failure. They do not reduce how much sex people have or the consequences of risky sexual behavior.
An abstinence-only approach to social media, while tempting, is unlikely to be effective. Instead, parents should integrate conversations about social media, particularly how the algorithms work, the impact of filters, and the way we feel about ourselves as a result.
Having “the talk” about social media
It may be uncomfortable at first, but parents should have “the talk” with kids about social media. And just like with sex education, this talk should not happen just once, but instead, be woven into conversation regularly. We also need to be clear that our goal is to share ideas and information. If we try too hard to convince or get buy-in, it can backfire.
Here are the three main elements of body image education with social media filters:
1. The algorithm
Kids need to know that social media is not a natural social environment, but a capitalistic pursuit. Social media companies collected $41.5 billion in 2020. They make money not by providing a fulfilling and safe social environment but by exploiting natural human curiosity and impulses.
Social media algorithms are sexist, racist, and discriminatory. They lean heavily towards promoting posts that perform well for the algorithm, which are most often thin white women in provocative poses.
What to say: kids hate the idea of being controlled, so let them know that the algorithms are designed to generate revenue for billionaires.
2. The filters
Social media filters are so common that unfiltered photos are novel and unusual. And they tend to not get as many likes as filtered photos. Social media filters are now associated with increases in cosmetic surgery.
‘Snapchat Dysmorphia’ is a term that was created by plastic surgeon Dr. Tijon Esho in 2018. It describes the increasing phenomenon of people seeking out cosmetic surgery to look like their filtered face in real life. 55% of plastic surgeons in 2018 reported that patients were seeking surgery to look better in selfies.
What to say: filters are so normal that people are taking filtered photos to plastic surgeons … and even surgery cannot achieve what a filter can. That’s the definition of “unattainable beauty standards.”
3. The feelings
Social media has an unquestionably negative impact on self-esteem. The platforms are designed to keep us scrolling because they exploit natural pathways in our brains. Dopamine hits from social media likes are intense, but they are ultimately empty. You can feel great for a post that does well, but then feel crushed if a post doesn’t do well.
Then there’s the comparison effect. We naturally compare ourselves to others. Endless images of filtered, conventionally attractive images that uphold a rigid beauty standard are harmful. Our brains don’t naturally differentiate between what we see on the screen from real life. So we feel less attractive, less important, and as if we must compete to be worthy.
What to say: social media gives us dopamine hits, but they aren’t meaningful or lasting. It drives insecurity and comparison, the opposite of fulfillment and connection.
We can do it!
There is no way to perfectly protect our kids from the impact of social media on body image. But we can do a lot to counteract the negative impact of social media. And it’s not all bad! Some kids adjust the algorithm to fit their interests and hobbies.
Social media does have tremendous opportunities to teach and inform. For example, the rise of transgender awareness has been powered by social media. We just need to make sure that kids recognize the opportunities and limitations of social media.
Recognize that social media companies will never protect our kids from harm. We must take that responsibility on ourselves.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.