Not too long ago, girls might have stressed about being "bikini-ready" every spring when the bathing suit magazines would hit the stands. And boys might have done a few extra pushups after seeing Wolverine's abs. But now, thanks to photo-centric social media like Instagram, Snapchat and other messaging apps, kids are exposed to a constant drumbeat of bikini bodies, six-pack abs, and just-right hair 24/7. And it's not just celebrities pushing idealized images of human perfection. It's your teens' friends posting pictures of themselves and one another for all the world to see and comment on. What's worse, many of these moments are captured seemingly unplanned, increasing kids' anxiety about looking "perfect" -- but effortlessly so -- at all times.
According to Common Sense Media's body-image study, Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image, teens who are active online worry a lot about how they're perceived. In fact, body dissatisfaction appears to be on the rise in the United States. A study by the Keep it Real Campaign found that 80 percent of 10-year-old American girls have been on a diet. Examples of negative teen body image are all over the Web. In YouTube videos, kids ask an Internet audience to tell them if they're pretty or ugly. They rate each other on Instagram. They bare themselves and beg for feedback on formspring.me. They edit their selfies and drink in advice about how to improve their online image.
Why are teens turning to the Internet for body image validation? Well, because they can. In adolescence, self-consciousness and the need for peer-validation are at their height, and the Internet acts as a kind of "super peer," providing a quick route to satisfying both concerns. But no one knows how all this criticism and judgment affect teens' body image. Research on media and body image to date has focused on so-called "traditional" mainstream media -- TV, movies, music, magazines, advertising -- containing unrealistic, idealized, and stereotypical portrayals of body types. But in a world where the feedback is constant, often negative, frequently public, and interactive, it can't be good.
Body image doesn't just happen. It's a complex phenomenon influenced by many factors, including parents, peers, and social contexts. But we know that media messages play a powerful role in shaping gender norms and body satisfaction.
Given that young people today are no longer only passive consumers of media -- they're also creating and sharing peer-to-peer media messages about boys' and girls' appearance – they have the tools of change in their hands. But they need guidance on how to use them. Parents are in a unique position to help their kids counteract negative messages by encouraging them to use media positively, creatively, and responsibly. And above all, to learn to value themselves as complex individuals -- not just another pretty face.