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Many Parents Worry About Social Media's Impact on Kids' Body Image: Poll

TUESDAY, May 23, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- About 7 in 10 American parents are concerned that social media trends related to appearance and editing apps and filters are harming their children’s body image, a new survey shows.

Among those polled, about 69% of parents expressed worry about these editing apps and filters, which can completely change the look of someone's face and body. This may make them appear to meet some supposed standard of beauty.

Also, about two-thirds said that trends related to diet and exercise also had a negative influence, according to the survey results released May 23 by the On Our Sleeves Movement for Children’s Mental Health, from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

A young person's feelings about their body can affect their mental health, said Erin McTiernan, a contributor to On Our Sleeves and a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s.

"Those concerns are valid,” McTiernan said about parents’ strong response to the survey questions. “Social media has some great benefits for kids, especially in the areas of entertainment and social connection. But when it comes to body image, there are some things that we know can have a negative impact.”

Making comparisons

Children may compare themselves to these unrealistic standards or feel this is how they should be because of the numbers of “likes” they get on social media for a certain look, McTiernan said.

“We know that those algorithms tend to then send kids more of those videos or images that they are maybe interested in and are looking at. If they're following things that are potentially harmful, things like certain trends, those ‘what I eat in a day’ videos or videos about certain exercise routines, then that becomes the main source of what kids are consuming online,” McTiernan said.

That can lead to an increased likelihood of developing disordered eating, anxiety and social anxiety, she said.

This type of media is pervasive in everyday life, and it's harder to get away from what magazines and TV did for earlier generations, experts say.

And there's a magnitude of difference between this and the body image issues teens may develop through in-person interactions, McTiernan said.

“With social media now, it's not just that I'm comparing myself to other kids at my school, but I'm comparing myself to these other kids all across the country or the world, even,” McTiernan said.

The survey was conducted in late March and early April by the Harris Poll on behalf of On Our Sleeves. It surveyed more than 2,000 U.S. adults, including 711 parents of kids younger than age 18.

Jacqueline Nesi, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, noted that the survey assessed parent perceptions. It’s not clear whether parents are concerned based on what they’re hearing from other sources or what they’re seeing in their own children, she said.

"The fact that parents are concerned about this is reason to pay attention to it,” said Nesi, who was not involved in the study.

Nesi also pointed to both benefits and risks of social media for teens, with positives including opportunities to connect with their friends, to explore identity and to learn about new topics.

The risks include negative content kids may see, including posts that encourage self-harm, as well as just simply overuse that for some kids gets in the way of life.

While social comparison can be a part of life, “with social media sometimes it can feel like we're really just looking at this highlight reel of everyone else's best aspects of their lives as well as most attractive presentations,” Nesi said.

What parents can do

How best to handle social media with teens will vary depending on the family, Nesi said. First, it’s important to have an open, ongoing conversation about social media.

It’s also important to set some limits, she said, on content and how much time kids can spend online.

Parents should monitor their youngsters' social media use, based on age. Parents of a younger adolescent could look at what their children are posting and check in with them on what’s showing up in their feed more directly.

“As kids get older, it might look a little bit more just like asking them questions, having more conversations and just making sure that we're trying to be aware of what they're doing on social media in ways that are age-appropriate,” Nesi said.

On Our Sleeves suggests talking with children about the pitfalls of social media, before kids begin using these platforms and then checking in with them as they go along.

The organization also offers resources on having positive conversations about food and bodies with kids.

Focus on overall health and not weight, the organization says, and model your own positive body image.

“We know that weight is correlated with health, but it's actually much less important than a lot of other factors,” McTiernan said. “Really, when we're talking about health, we're not talking solely about physical health. We're talking about the whole person. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.”

Instead of focusing on weight, talk about all the factors that contribute to physical health, including that a variety of foods can provide nutrients, energy and fuel.

Talk about exercise and moving your body in a way that feels good to you, bringing you joy and energy.

Also, focus on social connections that are good for emotional and mental health, and talk about creating healthy practices for self-care, relaxation and decompression after a busy day, McTiernan advised.

By broadening that definition of health and really looking at the whole person, "it reduces that pressure and that focus on that number,” McTiernan said.

More information

Pew Research Center has more on teens and social media.

SOURCES: Erin McTiernan, PsyD, contributor, On Our Sleeves Movement for Children’s Mental Health, and pediatric psychologist, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, Ohio; Jacqueline Nesi, PhD, assistant professor, Brown University, Providence, R.I.; On Our Sleeves Movement for Children’s Mental Health national poll, May 23, 2023

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