The best body on Facebook
The prevalence of social media has its dark sides, as an increasing number of girls find themselves competing with the best pictures and the cheerful status updates of their friends.
by Rune H. Rasmussen
"It's as if somewhere along the line, Facebook became the encyclopedia of beauty and status and comparisons."
Amanda Coleman, a college student and the president of her sorority, has quit Facebook. In an interview with CNN, she tells the story of how she, to an increasing degree, found herself counselling young girls who were stressed out by insecurities that were fuelled by social networking sites such as Facebook.
Coleman explains how a large number of girls couldn’t help spending hours in front of the computer screen, obsessing over photos and status updates, and comparing themselves to their friends and their friends' friends. In some cases, growing insecurities caused girls to deprive themselves of food while exercising incessantly.
"They were walking around saying, 'I'm not good enough. I'm not enough this or that.' And I guess what they had the most control over was their weight," Coleman said.
Social media has a strong impact
"Social networking sites are part of the ubiquitous media landscape that shapes what children come to know as society's body ideal," said Dina Borzekowski, professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who specialises in children, media and health. "Social media may have a stronger impact on children's body images than traditional media. Messages and images are more targeted; if the message comes from a 'friend,' it is perceived as more credible and meaningful."
There have been some studies on the effects of social networks on self-esteem, self-image and body image; however, the findings are conflicting. Some claim social networks boosts self-esteem, while others report the opposite.
For this reason, it’s hard to validate one study over the next. Still, CNN emphasizes one compelling 2011 study from the University of Haifa, where researchers found that the more time adolescent girls spent on Facebook, the more likely they were to develop a negative body image and eating disorders.
Either way, Sahara Byrne, assistant professor of communication at Cornell University Byrne, said it's a problem when potentially negative behaviour is rewarded by people you trust and relate to.
"If you have a girl put up a photo of herself very thin and scantily clad, and a slew of comments tell her she looks 'beautiful' or 'hot,' that's where you run into problems because others might seek that same reward."
It’s not a black and white picture
On the other hand, many young people do not feel anxiety about presenting themselves on social networks.
Alice Marwick, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in social media at Microsoft Research New England said: "Plenty of teens have no problems integrating these things into their lives. Most are navigating it very gracefully."
"My work errs on the side of giving kids the benefit of doubt," Marwick said. "Rather than pathologising children, we need to look at what messages we are sending in mainstream culture. There are some systemic issues at play here and we can't put the blame on individuals. We are living in a culture with extremely dysfunctional attitudes about weight."
Professor Borzekowski points out that online media have evolved significantly in just a couple of years. A large number of eating disorder messages are now being delivered through Twitter, texts, Tumblr and similar services. Still, these platforms are also being used to promote positive messages. In recent history, some of the younger celebrities, such as Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, have used Twitter to denounce messages that can fuel eating disorders.
Start talking to children about social media at an early age
In Borzekowski’s experience, children who are most at risk are those with more exposure to media messages, and less exposure to rational, clear messages from supportive adults and community leaders. She believes parents need to be more aware of the messages their children are exposed to:
"How many parents can really say they've seen the YouTube videos their teen has seen in the last two to three days? Parents need to be able to tell their kids to put their smartphones away."
At the same time, Borzekowski warns, parents can't be hypocritical. They "need to put their phones away, too."
Several studies show the benefits of starting to talk about online media with children at an early age.
"Anytime a child reports that their parent is hard to talk to about the Internet, that is correlated with all sorts of problems, including things the kids should not be doing online," Byrne says. "We as parents do not know everything about this space, but we can ask questions. Begin talking to children about social media at 6 or 7."
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