The Rise of the Toxic Selfie

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The NSPCC recently reported that in the past year, it has had a 17% increase in calls to its Childline service from children worried about their body image. Some were as young as 8. However as we all know, poor body image amongst adolescents, particularly girls, is not however a new thing.

Since the advent of traditional media, unrealistic ideals of body, both male and female, have been peddled and have been impacting negatively on the minds of young people.

Some commonly published statistics on the impact of traditional media include:

  • 53% of 13 year-old American girls are unhappy with their bodies. This number grows to 78% by the time girls reach 17 and over 80% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat.
  • Of American elementary school girls who read magazines, 69% said that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape, 47% say the pictures make them want to lose weight.
  • 95% of people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.

What is new, and still largely unknown, is the impact of social media on body image. Researchers at the University of Strathclyde, Ohio University and University of Iowa have done one of the few surveys on this subject and concluded that the more time women spent on Facebook, the more they compared their bodies with those of their friends, and the more negative they felt about their own appearance. These survey results echo a study done by the University of Haifa in 2011, which found that the more time girls spent on Facebook, the more they suffered from poor body image, eating disorders and urges to be on a weight loss diet.

So why is social media seemingly having the same negative impact on body image that traditional media has? Dina Borzekowski, professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health states “Social media may have a stronger impact on children’s body image than traditional media. Messages and images are more targeted: if the message comes from a friend it is perceived as more meaningful and credible.”

If so, this is worrying since it’s estimated that on a typical day, American children between ages 8-18 are engaged with media of some form for 7.5 hours. The media they are engaging with is increasingly social based and on their PCs, tablets and phones. This is far more exposure than pre social media days.

We also know that a core part of social media interaction for young people is sharing selfies. Google estimates that 93 million selfies are taken a day. A UK survey of 2000 women between 16 and 25 found that they spent 5 hours a week on average taking selfies. Indeed, it’s estimated that the average millennial will take 25,700 selfies in their lifetime.

Why is this a problem? Well in another study undertaken by Harris Interactive, 50% of people who post photos on their social media networks admit to editing them first and 48% of those were editing the photos to enhance their looks by removing blemishes, adding colour or making themselves look thinner. In fact, ‘selfie surgery’ is a bona fide phenomenon with a whole slew of apps dedicated to the act of enhancing selfies. So we know that young peoples’ body image is strongly impacted by what their social media friends post and we also know what those friends are posting is extremely likely to be flatteringly touched up. The need for peer-validation is at highest in teens and social media acts as a ‘super peer’, giving teens a fast track to seek validation. If the body image presented by those teens’ peers on social media is as unrealistic as that presented in more traditional media, then it is no surprise that organisations like the NSPCC are seeing a rise in calls on the subject.

Poor body image in young people can obviously lead to a whole raft of negative issues such as self-harming and eating disorders. A 2006 study by Stanford University found that 96% of girls who already had eating disorders had visited pro-anorexia websites and learned new weight loss techniques there and a residential eating disorder centre found that 50% of their patients were actively using social media to support their eating disorders.

So what can the industry do and, indeed, should they do something? I would argue that the Internet industry has a social responsibility to try and help instil our young people with healthy body images. Clearly, apps whose sole purpose is to touch-up selfies are directly influencing this ‘selfie surgery’ culture and, in my mind, need to rethink the consequences of their service. However, any site that offers its adolescent users avatars, profile character generators and the like can play a part by offering realistic body types and looks choices.

We can also make a change with education; the 2011 University of Haifa study found that girls whose parents were involved in their media usage were more resilient to the negative impacts compared to girls who parents were not involved. In addition, teaching young people to engage in critical interpretation of media can make them more resilient – teaching them to ask questions about who is behind the media messaging, what their motivation is, what they are trying to achieve, how the messages make the young person feel and whether the person being pictured is being presented in a realistic way and whether they are like that in real life. Lastly, services like Crisp Thinking’s Combat play an important part in identifying and helping Internet services stop cyberbullying, much of which is body image based amongst young people. In tackling this issue from several angles at once, by industry, NGOs and parents, we could hope to prevent the further rise of the toxic selfie and ensure our young people grow up with a balanced image of themselves.

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