Connections between kids’ media use and body image

Explore research findings about ways that media use can affect the health and wellbeing of young people

Think about all the media messages that you encounter every day – including those from sources that you seek out (such as websites, television programs, music and social media) and those that come to you (such as advertisements embedded within internet sites or the magazines you read). Chances are that you come across words and images that you find to be positive, entertaining, uplifting and educational. It’s also likely that you encounter messages that portray people in limiting, unrealistic, hurtful and stereotypical ways – all of which can influence how we think about ourselves and others. 

While some of us may be able to think about and navigate negative media messages in healthy ways, studies have shown that these kinds of messages can be damaging to the development and health of children and adolescents. A 2015 report from Common Sense Media provided an extensive review of research about the effects of traditional and digital media on the body image of young people. The term “body image” describes how we think, feel and act toward our bodies, and there are strong connections between body dissatisfaction and mental health problems such as eating disorders and depression. The Common Sense Media report looked at connections between the rising rates of body dissatisfaction of children and teens and the unrealistic appearance ideals that are increasingly prevalent in media. 

Considering the amount of time that young people spend with media, parents and other adults who care about kids may be drawn to learning more about the report’s findings and recommendations, such as the following:

  • How people think about their bodies is something they learn, and this learning is influenced by a variety of factors, including our individual characteristics, families, cultural groups, peers and media sources. Kids (and adults!) learn body image by comparing themselves to others and by observing and listening to role models. They may also be influenced by the many media messages that promote unrealistic, idealized and stereotypical body types – depictions that they may come to believe are normal and socially expected. This learning starts very young, and studies have shown that children as young as 5 express dissatisfaction with their bodies and are aware of ways to control body size and appearance.
  • A great deal of research has looked at ways that traditional media sources can influence body image and behavior. These types of media (TV, movies, music, magazines and advertising) are called “traditional” because they existed before the Internet. Research shows that media messages that promote unrealistic body types are very prevalent in traditional media. For girls and women, these portrayals often emphasize a thin and highly sexualized ideal, which means that their attractiveness and value are based on sexual appeal at the exclusion of other kinds of characteristics. For boys and men, these media portrayals have increasingly focused on ideals of fitness and muscularity – often to an extreme degree. Many studies have shown connections between the amount of time that girls and women spend with media and increases in their body concerns and appearance-oriented behaviors. While there has been less research focused on the media use of boys and men, some studies have identified connections between men’s exposure to unrealistic media ideals and their body dissatisfaction.
  • While there has been far less research about connections between body image and digital and social media, it’s important to keep in mind that kids are using digital devices (such as smartphones and tablets) to access traditional media at growing rates. This means that unrealistic and idealized messages that originate in “offline” media sources like TV are carried into online digital spaces. Young people have reported that watching TV is their most common and highest rated media activity no matter what kind of technology they’re using to access it. Many online sites – including those where people access TV programs – gather data about users and then target users with ads that are based on demographic assumptions. As a result, girls and women might see more online ads that promote weight loss programs and beauty products, while boys and men might be targeted with ads related to fitness and dietary supplements designed to increase muscle mass.
  • The report stressed that more research on media and body image is needed, especially related to groups that are underrepresented or missing from the current body of research – young children, boys and men, youth of color, and youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. The report also called for more research focused on body image and digital and social media, while keeping in mind what young people tell us about the value of their social media experiences. For example, a 2012 report provided by Common Sense Media indicated that teens report that using social media has more positive than negative effects on their social and emotional wellbeing. 

Many additional findings and recommendations are included in the Common Sense Media report on media and body image, as well as a listing of research studies on which the report is based. One of the approaches mentioned in the report with potential for addressing these issues is media literacy. Developing a positive body image is essential to the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents, and it’s helpful for kids (and adults!) to think critically about media messages that promote unrealistic and limiting portrayals of bodies. Through opportunities to build media literacy skills, young people can explore, deconstruct and challenge these unhealthy messages. Many media literacy scholars stress that parents and others can help young children learn to analyze and evaluate media messages, creating a foundation of skills that can guide their media experiences throughout their development. 

Michigan State University Extension provides a variety of programs and resources related to the positive health and development of children and adolescents. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which includes a curriculum that has a focus on helping early adolescents become critical consumers of media.