Children as young as five years old are unhappy with their body image, and some six-year-old girls want to look "sexy." What can parents do to counteract the destructive messages that kids receive through social media?
Body image dissatisfaction is on the rise among kids. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, 60 percent of girls think they are too fat when in fact they are too thin. The issue goes beyond youth feeling badly about themselves: body image is linked to their development, and mental and physical well-being.
Body image crisis?
A long-term study of more than 10,000 Ontario students showed that in 2013, the number of female students who believed they were overweight had increased by 33 percent compared to what girls of the same age believed in 2001.
Boys are also feeling increased pressure to be slim or muscular. In the Ontario study, almost one-third of the students—regardless of gender—reported that they are attempting to lose weight. Twenty-two percent wanted to keep from gaining weight.
Research shows that body image dissatisfaction can be found in children as young as five years old. Girls as young as six years old want to look “sexy.”
These alarming stats are fuelled insidiously: more than ever before, youth are bombarded with unhealthy and unrealistic messages about body image.
Normal behaviour exploited
Children develop their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours about their bodies by comparing themselves to, and modelling themselves after, others. It is developmentally normal for tweens to begin to look to their peers to determine what is “cool” or socially desirable. In addition, they assume that what they see portrayed around them is the norm.
Marketing has always played on this need for inclusion by creating anxiety about appearance and providing the solution. There was a time when advertising only reached our children through television, radio, and magazines. Today, their digital world provides a steady stream of aspirational images, and social media is a growing influence.
The social media snare
According to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that promotes safe media and technology for kids, three-quarters of adolescents have a social media profile. Online social networks can foster connection, community engagement, and creative expression, but they also increase the risk of appearance-related pressures and teens evaluating themselves in comparison to others.
One study showed that among adolescents active on social networks
- 35 percent worry about people tagging them in unattractive photos
- 27 percent feel stressed out about how they look when they post pictures
- 22 percent feel badly about themselves when nobody comments on or “likes” the photos they post
Although these feelings were most common among girls, boys experienced them as well.
Sometimes this anxiety spills out of personal social networks and into the wider virtual world.
A public plea
Since 2009 or so, thousands of tweens and teens have uploaded videos to YouTube asking the question, “Am I pretty or ugly?” The girls in these videos plead with the viewer to “please be honest … I really want to know …”
Often peers have told them they are pretty while others have called them ugly, and they are trying to understand which is true. This is sometimes dismissed as a silly trend, but these are the pleas of real children. Girls who take to the internet for feedback about their appearance are striving to form a sense of identity and accurate body image. They have no idea that the immediate feedback loop received through strangers is potentially harmful or unreliable.
Body image isn’t shaped exclusively by media exposure. Exclusion or bullying at school and family attitudes about weight and shape play a part in developing body image.
In the schoolyard
Children who are considered overweight are most likely to be bullied, excluded, or teased about their body size. In one study of teens seeking weight loss treatment, 92 percent reported having experienced weight-based victimization by their peers.
In the same study, 37 percent of the teens reported that their parents had teased or belittled them due to weight.
This type of body shaming has a direct impact on self-esteem and body image, and it can lead to health risks: in another study, girls who reported teasing by family members were 150 percent more likely to engage in binge-eating or extreme weight control behaviours five years later.
In addition to social pressures about appearance, public heath messaging has shone a spotlight on children in larger bodies. Families and schools are more focused on food choices than ever before. Sports and activities are promoted as “obesity prevention.”
While teaching kids healthy habits is important, we need to be careful. There is a body shaming and moral element to some messaging that may be doing more harm than good. Children who dislike their bodies or appearance have higher rates of eating disorders, depression, and other mental health concerns.
For all of us, how we feel about our body and how we feel in our body affects our daily choices. According to Margo Lane, a pediatrician in Manitoba, “Over-concern with body image and weight can lead to unhealthy weight control methods and disordered eating behaviours.” Lane suggests that parents explain to adolescents why dieting is harmful. “Weight loss from dieting is temporary and can lead to increased health risks,” she warns.
According to Lane, severe calorie restriction in children or adolescents can lead to
- abnormal heart rhythms
- thinning bones
- a decrease in normal hormonal levels
- delayed growth and physical development
How to recognize body image problems
According to Karin Jasper, a clinical mental health specialist in Ontario, children and tweens are less likely than teens to give voice to feelings that they weigh too much.
“They may say nothing at all while attempting to eat less or avoid certain food groups,” says Jasper.
She recommends that parents watch for changes in behaviour, including
- altered eating patterns
- changes in social activity
- physical complaints such as stomach pain or headaches
- weight loss
- lack of growth
And remember: young people who are showing signs of body image distortion may be experiencing bullying or other challenges such as social anxiety.
How to help
We can support children in developing a healthy body image by letting them know they are beautiful no matter their body size. Remind kids that appearance is just one of their attributes and that their identity is dependent on other qualities such as their efforts, their interests, and their personality. If body dissatisfaction is suspected, don’t dismiss it as a normal part of development. Support the child to accept their body and treat it with care. a
Tips to counteract media messages
- Consume media with your children and keep an eye on their social networks.
- Make yourself aware of the risks and misinformation associated with online fitness and body-building forums.
- Talk about the editing and filters people use when they post pictures on social media; discuss your child’s own use of these techniques.
- Point out the stereotypes in media images. Discuss body size as a diversity issue—just as you might discuss skin colour, ability, gender, or sexual orientation.
- Teach kids to be critical viewers of advertising.
- Be curious about the music, movies, and online images your kids are exposed to. Find out what they appreciate about popular culture and encourage them to challenge the aspects that are discriminatory, cruel, or stereotypical.
- Encourage teens to explore making media: blogs, zines, and photography are all ways for them to have a voice in media and begin to define their own ideas of what is important.
- Media Smarts provides tools for parents to help children and youth become active and informed digital citizens. mediasmarts.ca
- The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) provides resources on eating disorders and weight preoccupation. nedic.ca
- Dietitians of Canada provides tips for parents on promoting good eating habits while encouraging healthy body image. dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Children.aspx
Tips to help children accept their bodies
- As a parent, be a role model. Demonstrate respect and appreciation for your own body and avoid self-criticism.
- Don’t tease or criticize a child about weight, shape, or appearance; instead, offer support and reassurance.
- Avoid making negative comments about weight or stereotyping people in large bodies.
- Intervene to address weight-based teasing or stigma at school or in community programs.
- If your child is taller, heavier, or differently shaped than his or her peers, be creative and assertive in finding clothing and sports equipment that fit.
- Focus on what your child’s body can do, rather than just what it looks like.
- Weight gain is a normal and healthy part of puberty and adolescence. Prepare kids for these changes.
- Demonstrate a balanced approach to eating and teach youth to recognize natural hunger and satiety cues.
- Explain why it’s important to eat carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Teach kids to eat for energy and health—and for pleasure.
- Initiate active family outings like bike rides, dog walking, or weekend hikes.
- Share any concerns about your child’s eating behaviours or body image with a health professional.