Written evidence submitted by Rt Revd Rachel Treweek,
Bishop of Gloucester (MISS0025)
Background: The Bishop of Gloucester’s #Liedentity campaign began in October 2016 and works in partnership with local and national organisations to encourage children and young people to talk about the issue of social media’s impact on self-image and self-worth and promote the message that who you are is more than how you look. The campaign was prompted by discussions the Bishop had with children and young people in primary and secondary schools across the diocese and the 2016 Children’s Society, Good Childhood report. This all lead to serious concern that issues of poor body image were under appreciated and addressed. Young people have been at the heart of the campaign and it was launched with edited images of young people from All Saints Academy Secondary School in Cheltenham. These images were a stark reminder that being Photoshopped does not create a realistic image. A number of specially produced videos have also been created to give young people a voice and earlier this year the diocese commissioned pieces from four young spoken-word artists to share their impressions of the effects of social media on young people.
Who is particularly at risk of poor body image? (groups protected by the Equality Act)
Under-eighteens, both girls and boys are at particular risk of poor body image. Liedentity’s work with children and young people has highlighted particular risk for under-eighteens, who receive constant messages about ‘what the perfect body image is’ from traditional and social media. I am concerned about effects on both girls and boys; the pressure to look a certain way is felt by both groups though it may manifest differently. All may find it difficult or awkward to recognise or initiate conversations about this issue. Young people are particularly at risk because of a lack of age-appropriate design in apps and online. Without age-verification, under-eighteens are at risk of accessing inappropriate adult content, advertising targeted at adults, and certainly not content that has been designed for or considered with children in mind.
What contributes to poor body image?
Traditional and social media in particular contribute to the way in which young people perceive themselves and poor body image. An emphasis on certain kinds of physical appearance and implicit messages about what a ‘good’ or ‘desirable’ body looks like affect the way young people value and feel about themselves. The impact of online pornography on young people’s body image should not be overlooked.
What are the long-term effects of poor body image on people?
Though long-term impact hasn’t been the Liedentity project’s primary focus, low-self esteem and poor body image have an ongoing impact on people’s sense of value and self-worth. This will have long-term consequences, including an effect on mental health.
What is the impact of media consumption on people’s body image, does it impact their mental health? –
Children and young people’s media consumption shapes their body image and has consequences for well-being and mental health.
What is the relationship between poor body image and mental health conditions including eating disorders?
The Liedentity project’s work has noticed a loose link between poor body image and mental ill health. Self-consciousness and poor self-image can affect all aspects of children’s well-being including mental health.
Has Government policy had an impact on improving body image? –
Government policy has had little impact on these issues.
Lack of cross-governmental accountability or focus on children’s issues has hampered the development of any sort of strategy. The failure to take action on online harms or age-appropriate design means that young people are constantly bombarded by inappropriate messaging about body image and what it means to have value. Failure to take action on access to online pornography in particular has huge consequences for children and young people. Widespread promotion of dietary pills, weight-loss methods and bodybuilding supplements contributes to unhealthy and damaging messages for children online, which then results in poor self-image and warped perceptions of what healthy bodies look like.
It is unfair to expect children to navigate a minefield of adult content for themselves online. The government should adopt an aggressive strategy of holding both social media firms and online advertisers responsible for the content children are exposed to. A statutory duty of care and mandatory age verification would be a good place to start.
There is little evidence that children’s own views have been taken into account when formulating policy. This is a significant oversight the Government should address.
I would encourage the Committee (and Government) to look at the work of UWE’s Centre for Appearance Research, which provides a strong evidence base from which government should take action on this issue.
Would proposals in the Online Harms White Paper protect people from potential harm caused by social media content in regard to body image?
More and better regulation of online harms through the introduction of a regulator would be a step forward. Voluntary codes of practice have been a marked failure in regulating online space. Pro-anorexia and suicide content is still accessible through mainstream apps and social media websites, and the introduction of some sort of penalties for allowing children to access this content would be positive.
More concerning is the daily barrage of images children face, and particularly high amounts of advertising, both in the form of traditional advertising and ‘influencer’ marketing. Age-verification is non-existent in actuality and children are not identified or sufficiently protected on social media websites, both from advertising on platforms and content on those platforms themselves which are inappropriate for under-eighteens.
The Online Harms White Paper itself and Government’s response to the consultation on the Paper fail to explicitly address the issue of body image and firms’ lack of action on this issue. They further do not sufficiently address problems relating to age verification.
Cyberbullying and anonymous apps are an ongoing concern.
 Available at https://www.gloucester.anglican.org/2020/mirror-mirror-answer-me-what-is-it-i-need-to-be/