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Social Media and Body Dissatisfaction

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Young women's version of this guide

Social media has become a big part of peoples’ lives, especially teenagers. Platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok are used by people all over the world. There are many good things about social media. It allows people to communicate and express themselves. However, there are also some concerns related to body image that come with lots of time spent online.

Focus on Appearance

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A lot of the images, videos, and moments you see posted online are focused on appearance. This intense focus on the way somebody looks can create what is called an ideal. An ideal is a certain standard or idea of what is perfect. Appearance ideals can include certain body types, facial features, or hairstyles.

The problem here is that people tend to dwell upon these ideals and eventually internalize them. Internalizing means that we think about the appearance ideals that we see online so much that they end up becoming our own mind’s standard and idea of perfection.

Why is this a problem?

When we dwell upon appearances and compare ourselves to the people we see online, it can make us want to change ourselves. As a teenager, you are most likely just starting to go through lots of different changes with your body and thinking about your body as well as whether it’s normal.

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Comparing yourself to other people you see online may lower self-esteem. When we compare ourselves to others in this way, it is called upward comparison. This means that we compare ourselves to people we think are better than we are. This could be comparing our body to a fitness instructor, model, influencer, or celebrity on social media, which could make us feel like our body is not good enough.

Upward comparison can sometimes motivate us to improve and work harder, but most of the time, it results in negative feelings like shame or feeling inferior. When we feel inferior to someone, this means that we feel less than, like we we are of a lower status than them. Unfortunately, teenagers that already have low self-esteem or depression are even more likely to make these kinds of comparisons, which can make their low self-esteem and depression even worse.

Desire to Change

The desire to change one’s appearance comes from their ideas about what they believe is perfect when it comes to their body, face, hair, and so on. One way this might happen is related to weight bias. Weight bias is when a society has negative attitudes and beliefs about people because of their weight. This can be seen in the United States, which places a lot of emphasis on thinness and muscularity. In fact, it has been found that those with a higher BMI (Body Mass Index) are more likely to experience body dissatisfaction and develop the desire to change their appearance. The desire to change the way we look usually results in two different ways. These ways are muscle-building behaviors and limiting what we eat. This can be very serious, as these behaviors can become too intense and result in some form of disordered eating.

How social media algorithms put teens at risk

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What is an algorithm and why should you know about it? Algorithms on social media sites work to sort and organize posts that best suit the content we enjoy looking at. The purpose of this is to show users the posts that they are most likely to be interested in and interact with through different ‘like’ and ‘comment’ features.

Recent research and even leaked documents from social media platforms have come out that show that the algorithm actually puts social media users at risk. The algorithm may show content that could be triggering to users who are struggling with body dissatisfaction. When something is triggering, that means it causes somebody to have an intense emotional or physical reaction. For example, a young teenager who wants to lose weight might become ‘triggered’ after seeing lots of thin girls on social media. Algorithms can create a dangerous cycle. They might recommend content that triggers a person’s insecurities related to their body. This can make them more likely to make negative social comparisons and create the desire to change their appearance. In some cases, this can lead to disordered eating behaviors if the desire to change goes too far.

What you can do

 This information can be scary, even for adults who want their kids to be healthy and safe online. There is still a lot that you can do while still using social media platforms:

  • Remember that most of the pictures on social media are heavily edited and not always completely real
    • Users can use photoshop applications, filters, and different editing tools to make themselves look a certain way
  • Edit your settings to block content that might be triggering
    • Most social media platforms have an option you can select that lets the site know you are not interested in that kind of content
  • Set limits on the time you are using social media
    • This can be challenging, but you can start with small steps. For instance, start with keeping your phone in a basket at dinnertime, or right before bedtime.
  • Practice body positivity
    • Focus on the things you like about yourself. If a negative thought about your body pops up in your mind, try to think of something positive instead.
    • Try to stop comparing yourself to others. This can be difficult, especially with the algorithm explained above, but try to catch yourself when you are making negative comparisons. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that your body is unique and special to you, which is just the way you are supposed to look.
    • Practice positive self-talk. Give yourself daily encouragement and reminders. Try making a list of all things you like about yourself, or keeping positive notes close by in your room or bookbag.
    • Do things you enjoy that are good for your body too. Maybe you like to take relaxing bubble baths, or go hiking with your family. Whatever it is, enjoy yourself and stay in the moment.
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