What Role does Social Media play in Young People’s Perceptions of their Bodies?

Social media is often referred to as a ‘toxic’ or ‘dangerous’ environment for young people, particularly in the case of body image. Celebrity and/or advertising cultures, and increased exposure to vast amounts of unregulated content are commonly identified as ‘risky’ online practices (see Fardouly and Vartanian, 2016). Yet, the extent to which social media impacts on young people’s perceptions of their bodies is relatively unknown. There is little understanding of the types of content young people engage with, and how and why their knowledge and behaviours are influenced. 

To better understand how to support young people’s body image-related knowledge and behaviours, we need to learn from them about how they experience social media. It is well-established that young people make extensive use of social media and for many young people, social media can be regarded as an extension of self and a primary mode of communication, entertainment and social engagement (Goodyear and Armour, forthcoming). If as adults, we want to offer support to young people – in the areas of beauty, body image or beyond – we need to understand their social media worlds. There is a need to understand how they engage and navigate social media, what they learn from it, and how that may influence their behaviours.

The importance of understanding the relationship between young people, social media and body image (or beauty) is further provided by the well-established influence of the media on young people’s body-image related knowledge and behaviours (see Oliver & Kirk, 2016). Furthermore, we know that adolescence is characterised by dynamic brain development and that interaction with the social environment shapes the capabilities an individual takes forward into adult life (Patton et al., 2016). The significance, importance and potential power of social media in young people’s current perceptions of their bodies, and their potential future behaviours, demonstrates the urgent need for new knowledge to be produced on this topic. 

Young People’s Perspectives on Social Media and their Health and Wellbeing

In a recent project – Young People, Social Media and Health (see Goodyear, Armour and Wood, 2018) – we aimed to better understand the health-related risks and opportunities of social media from young people’s perspectives. Focusing on the key content areas of physical activity, diet/nutrition and body image, we worked with over 1300 young people in the UK to better understand how social media influences their health and wellbeing.  

Our approach to the research was slightly different. A participatory and mixed methods design was adopted, involving class activities (scenarios, design-based tasks, digital pinboards, questionnaires), interviews and workshops with young people, where the methods were co-constructed and co-designed with groups of young people prior to data collection. To date, most evidence has been limited to one-off-short-duration intervention studies, analysis of parent/guardian and teacher perspectives, and/or evidence from survey data or observational methods (see Mascheroni et al., 2014, Wartella et al., 2016). From these studies, health-related impacts of digital media engagement have been associated with time spent on social media, the platform, and/or the dissemination/accessibility of information (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017, Shaw et al., 2015). Our approach aimed to better accommodate the complexity of social media as a medium, and provide new insights into the diverse ways in which young people navigate social media.

New Findings

The findings from our project revealed that young people respond in very different ways to similar information. Indeed, contrary to popular opinion, many young people were critically aware users and generators of social media. For example, the same image of a celebrity would be motivating for one young person, whereas another young person would dismiss the post. There was further evidence that most young people in the sample would swipe past information if it was related to body image, and were not interested in using this type of information to inform their knowledge and/or behaviours. 


There was some evidence of risks in the data. Some young people, some of the time, found themselves in a position of vulnerability due to their engagement with social media and/or because of how their issues related to body image became magnified within the context of social media. The findings showed that social media is a very dynamic environment where negative impacts can escalate quickly due to the power of the medium and its content. There were clear tipping points from when young people were in control of social media, to when social media began to control them.

5 Forms of Content

The ways in which young people were both critical and vulnerable users, and generators of social media, can be explained by five forms of social media content. The five forms of content exemplify how social media can have both positive and negative effects on young people’s perceptions of their bodies. A description of the different forms of content can be found below, and case study animated videos on how these forms of content operate can be accessed here: 



Content
Explanation
Automatically Sourced Content
The influence of health-related material that social media sites pre-select and promote to young people. For example, Instagram pre-selects content that users see on the ‘search and explore’ feature, based on a user’s likes, who that user follows and their followers’ likes, and automatically sourced accounts
Suggested Content
The process whereby young people’s ‘searches’ for specific health-related material result in social media sites then promoting vast amount of partially related material to their accounts. For example, suggested videos on YouTube
Peer Content
Content created and shared by peers, and the actions of young people liking or not liking posts, had a powerful influence over young people’s health-related behaviours and understandings. Young people experienced a level of peer pressure to change their behaviours as a result of viewing health-related material shared by peers, including selfies. Young people developed shared understandings about health from sharing and creating content in health-related spaces  
Likes
Likes are positioned as a form of endorsement and had a strong influence on young people’s engagement with health-related material and their health-related understandings and behaviours. Credibility of information is gauged by the number of likes a post receives, with 200 likes acting as the benchmark
Reputable Content
The influences of specific social media accounts on young people’s health-related understandings and behaviours. These types of accounts have a high number of followers and this provides a powerful platform from which to reach and impact young people in both positive and negative ways. Celebrities acted as role models, yet their posts and/or advertisements were often inappropriate and/or targeted at adult health-related behaviours.
                                                                                             Goodyear et al. 2018, p.19

Implications

Young people’s experiences of social media are dominated by narratives of risk. What our research provides is an alternative narrative, that incorporates young people as critical users and generators of social media, who have a high level of agency when it comes to their digital body image-related behaviours.

Although young people have agency and are critically aware of content, adults still have a crucial role to play in supporting young people. We know that during adolescence, young people’s social, emotional and physical needs can change very rapidly, and this reinforces the need for relevant adults to be better informed about social media in order to offer appropriate support at particular points in time when young people might suddenly become vulnerable.

Adults should not ban or prevent young people’s uses of social media, particularly given the findings from our study that social media can have positive effects and is a very powerful learning resource. Instead, there is a need to help young people critically examine their media-related behaviours, considering how and why information reaches them, and why they respond in different ways and at different time points. 

Victoria Goodyear is a Lecturer in Pedagogy of Sport, Physical Activity and Health at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research focuses on role of digital technologies and social media in young people’s health and wellbeing, and the operation of pedagogy in digital/online contexts. She is also interested in digital ethics, participatory digital methods and knowledge translation via digital animated videos. 

Further Information 
For further information about the study and to access the guidelines, videos and academic paper, please click here.

References 
  • Fardouly, J., and Vartanian, L.R., 2016. Social media and body image concerns: current and future directions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 9, 1-5.
  • Goodyear, V.A., and Armour, K.M. forthcoming. Young People, Social Media, Physical Activity and Health. Routledge.      
  • Goodyear, V.A., Armour, K.M., and Wood, H., 2018. Young people and their engagement with health-related social media: new perspectives. Sport, Education and Society, iFirst.
  • MacIssac, S., Kelly, J., and Gray, S., 2017. ‘She has like 4000 followers!’: the celebrification of self within school social networks. Journal of Youth Studies, iFirst Article.
  • Mascheroni, G., Jorge, A., and Farrugia, L., 2014. Media representations and children’s discourses on online risks: findings from qualitative research in nine European countries. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research in Cyberspace, 8(2), article 2.
  • Oliver, K.M., and Kirk, D., 2016. Towards an activist approach to research and advocacy for girls and physical education. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 21, 313-327.
  • Patton, G.C., Sawyer, S.M., Santelli, J.S., Ross, D.A., Afifi, R. et al., 2016. Our future: A Lancet commission on adolescent health and wellbeing. Lancet, 387, 2423-2478.
  • Royal Society for Public Health., 2017. #Status on mind: social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. London: Royal Society for Public Health.
  • Shaw, J.M. Mitchell, C.A., Welch, A.J., and Williamson, M.J., 2015. Social media used as a health intervention in adolescent health: a systematic review of the literature. Digital Health, 1, 1-10.
  • Wartella, E., Rideout., V., Montague, H., Beaudoin-Ryan and Lauricella, A., 2016. Teens, health, and technology: a national survey. Media and Communications, 4(3), 12-23. 

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