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How is body image affected by social media and going online?

The immediate public judgment and comparison social media provides can affect body image, especially for girls. In our report on body-image studies, Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image, Common Sense found that teens who are active online fret about how they're perceived.

Among the findings:

  • 35 percent are worried about people tagging them in unattractive photos;
  • 27 percent feel stressed about how they look when posting photos; and
  • 22 percent felt bad about themselves if their photos were ignored.

For kids who are susceptible to body dissatisfaction, forums that promote the extremes of diet, weight loss, fitness, and even eating disorders can be a risk. So-called "pro-ana" sites encourage unrealistic thinness ideals and anorexia with photos, personal essays, and scary slogans such as "starving is an example of excellent willpower." Body-building groups can promote unhealthy regimens in the pursuit of lean or bulked-up musculature for boys.

But Common Sense also found some positive links between social media and body image. Some studies show that exposure to one's own social media photos can raise self-esteem. And social media has the potential to combat unrealistic appearance ideals. Kids are beginning to coopt social media and selfies to portray more realistic images, with pictures tagged as "#nomakeup" and "#nofilter."

Parents can play an important role in helping kids reject negative body-image messages from the online world.

  • Pay attention to what you say about your own body image, and make sure you emphasize what bodies can do versus what they look like.
  • Talk about eating healthily, exercising for physical fitness, and a healthy body image. Discourage extreme approaches to diet and exercise.
  • Encourage your kids to get involved in positive, constructive online forums where they feel valued.
  • Help your kid develop a healthy approach to social media so it's only one aspect of their lives.
  • If you're concerned that your kid is engaging in unhealthy activities, consider an appointment with your pediatrician.
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