Written evidence submitted by Dr Beth T Bell and Ms Danielle Paddock,
York St John University (MISS0031)
1. The impact of poor body image. There are many factors that contribute to negative body image (e.g., parents, media, and peers). Our research has shown the following:
Many social media images feature unrealistic body ideals that are difficult for the majority of individuals to achieve naturally1. For men, these ideals are muscular and lean, whereas for women they are thin, toned and curvaceous. Adolescents describing feel pressure to conform to these ideals, triggering body dissatisfaction, lowered confidence and lower self-esteem2.
Social media facilitate user interactions; young people typically use social media to interact with peers. However, many peer interactions centre on social media are appearance-focused, e.g., teasing peers about their appearance or providing appearance-related compliments on a selfie, and so can affect body image 2,3.
Mobile Diet and Fitness Apps.
Though much less studied in comparison to social media, there is some preliminary evidence to suggest that diet and exercise apps may contain content that is conducive to poor body image, including  focus on achieving unrealistic body ideals through diet and exercise, and  unregulated setting of body weight goals (including under-weight body goals)4. Users of mobile diet and fitness apps report negative impact on mental health (e.g., feeling anxious, obsessiveness, diet guilt etc.).4
2. Media. There is consensus among researchers that type of social media use is more important to understanding how social media affect young people, than overall amount.
User-generated content on social media featuring unrealistic body ideals (regardless of whether the poster is a peer or a celebrity) can make adolescents feel bad about their own bodies2, 5. Similarly posting edited or sexualised self-images is linked to negative body image6. Lastly, comments and likes supplied on user-generated can also affect body image. These effects extend to those who give the feedback, those who receive feedback, those who view feedback, and even those who are preoccupied with social media feedback2,7,8.
Content promoting eating disorders and diet culture can often be found in unexpected places on social media (e.g., messages promoting extreme thinness can be found among exercise content1). Promisingly, research has shown that some young adolescents can critically engage with this content9, though it is unclear if criticality is sustained across adolescence9. Concerningly problematic diet content is often engaged with as part of mobile health and fitness app use (e.g., users of calorie counting apps that allow low body weight setting might use social media to view images of thin women for inspiration)4. Users do not have to actively seek out this content for it to appear in their feed9,4.
School-based body image interventions are demonstrably effective in improving adolescents’ body image. Recent interventions (e.g., Body Image in the Digital Age) effectively tackle the challenges posed by digital media and technology to adolescents’ body image10. These interventions could be government funded. Alternatively, CPD training could be provided for existing teachers providing them with the resources needed to deliver interventions in schools. Lastly, integrating body image education into teacher training programmes, including information about the challenges posed by the digital age, is important.
Regulation. Stricter regulation of mobile diet and exercise apps (e.g., restrict underweight goal settings, set age restrictions) is needed. Stricter regulation of social media content focused on diet and exercise, and/or relating to unrealistic body ideals is also needed but difficult to implement, e.g., reducing amount of content young people are exposed to via algorithms, verified status for diet information posters etc.