Research: What Parents Need to Know About Kids, Media, and Body Image

Common Sense Media's new report highlights media's impact on kids and body image. By Sierra Filucci

How kids think, feel, and act about their bodies is a critical piece of their self-esteem and overall healthy development. Common Sense Media's new research report, Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image, examines the role of traditional and digital media in the development of children's and teens' body image. This review of existing research reveals some surprising trends -- such as that half of 6- to 8-year-old girls feel their ideal body size is thinner than their current one -- but it also shows evidence that parents play a huge part in shaping how kids relate to their bodies. Some key findings:

  • Many kids are dissatisfied with their bodies, and society's body appearance ideals are highly unrealistic.
  • Body-image concerns start early; even preschoolers learn that society judges people by how they look. 
  • Parents' attitudes toward their own bodies are a big influence on how kids feel about their bodies.
  • Unrealistic, sexualized, and stereotypical images and messages about bodies and gender are rampant in the media kids consume.
  • Teens feel pressure to look good and cool online but also feel that social media helps their friendships and connections with like-minded peers. 
  • Although young girls are most susceptible, boys have issues with body image too. 

Our report uncovers large gaps in research on body image and media. Several groups -- young children, boys, kids of color, LGBTQ youth -- are not well-studied, and research on online, digital media has yet to keep pace with the explosion in their use by kids and teens.

For Q&As about body image, plus advice for parents of preschoolers, tweens, and teens on how to immunize kids against an unhealthy body image and support kids who are struggling with body-image issues, check out our collection of parent advice at Sex, Gender, and Body Image. And for a shareable collection of stats and advice about body image, check out our body image infographic.

About Sierra Filucci

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Sierra is a journalist with a special interest in media and families. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she's been writing and editing professionally for more... Read more

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Comments (8)

Adult written by chrijeff50

You make several good points, especially in regard to "unrealistic" body image. But, let's face it, being *over*weight is good for *nobody's* health. Surely there must be some way to help our kids look at their bodies realistically and practically, with an eye toward *healthy* body weight?
Parent of a 10 year old written by Trebuchet

Yes, of course we as parents should teach our children to look at their bodies realistically, as well as how to live healthy lives. But we aren't the only influences, and the ones out of our control are extreme. My child has a healthy weight, and so do most of her classmates. But she started telling me about kids calling each other "fat" in second grade and it is worse now. Even among those with healthy weight, many are obsessed about it at age 10, and it isn't just girls. I have overheard it myself, kids saying to others, "Am I fat?" or "Don't like her, she's fat!" In addition to good health habits, we have to teach them how to be good friends. We also have to make sure they know that our culture is a bit messed up about this issue and it is okay to push back against others' judgments.
Adult written by JEDI micah

I understand that many kids are concerned about their body image and I do know the media's image of the human body is unrealistic, but honestly...why does it have to be considered a bad thing? I mean, think about it: With all these kids going on diets, it'll be good for their health! And it also lowers the rate of obesity that we see in this country! So if kids wanna go on a diet, I say "Let them give it a shot!"
Kid, 10 years old

Yes, but diets are not always necessary. Plus, some kids are so concerned with not being fat, they get anorexia and starve themselves! So it's best to not be over-concerned with being skinny. Go eat a big fat sandwich.
Kid, 12 years old

I get your point but a bad body image can ruin self esteem and even promote eating disorders. If we want to stop child obesity encourage them to play outside and be positive. The bible said " people judge by looks but i judge whats in the heart"
Parent of a 10 year old written by Trebuchet

Teaching your children to love their bodies is great, but I think you also have to show them that the current standard of beauty is a complete fiction. Those aren't actual bodies they are comparing themselves to. I showed my daughter the "Dove: Evolution of a Model" video (about 1 minute long) and talked to her about how every advertisement photo is altered with Photoshop to make the models look thinner, with bigger eyes and no blemishes. It takes a team of makeup and technology experts several hours to create that look. This helped her look at ads with a more skeptical eye. There is a similar video of a male model, but it is a tiny bit more PG, so I suggest watching it yourself first. Female: Male:
Parent of a 3, 7, and 10 year old written by GregNeumayer

Agreed. Unfortunately, for most parents you could also title this post: "How to help your children love the body you gave them through your poor leadership." Notwithstanding your good follow-up, I think it starts with parents modeling good behaviors. Anyone can have body-image issues, but let's at least give them a head start by starting with a healthy body!
Adult written by Senser123

I feel that if you look at Meghan Trainor singing All About That Bass as a parent just think of the anti-skinny message she is sending in the lyrics that way your girls may be prouder than ever to be at a healthy weight