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Although body positivity communities exist, Social Media is harmful for the body image and identity formation of young women.

Social media is a topic that is spoken about worldwide; there are many differing opinions surrounding the use of social media and if it is a positive or a negative influence in society. One thing that cannot be argued is that social media is well and truly alive and thriving in today’s society and it is here to stay, whether people like it or not. Although there are many pros and cons surrounding social media, in this text, I will argue the point that social media is harmful for the body image and identity formation of young women.

If you want to look for silver linings, you can pretty much find them in anything, and the same can be said for social media. There have, of course, been good things to come out of social media, such as being able to connect with family and friends all over the world, spreading awareness for many different diseases and causes, and raising money for these causes. These reasons and more are why social media is the 21st century’s most accessible convenience; but there are too many reasons for why social media is our heaviest burden, one of these reasons is the harmful affect it can have on young woman.

Teenagers, especially young girls, have a hard enough time growing up trying to discover themselves and navigating with relationships, bullying, and comparing themselves to other girls; and social media has made this process of going from a girl to a woman ten times harder. Social media sites such as Instagram contain photos only, and there are so many filters and apps that can edit a photo to make you look flawless. These apps can remove blemishes, can make you look slimmer, and can basically make you look like you have zero imperfections. The issue with this is that is creates an unattainable standard of beauty that girls try to live up to. In (Carah & Dobson, 2016) it is discussed how Instagram uses an ‘Algorithmic Hotness’. Instagram highlights and displays images of attractive girls in their search function, showing only the ‘perfect’ body type and most attractive faces (Carah & Dobson, 2016).  Girls then scroll through their Instagram and see these ‘perfect’ girls and want to try and be like them, which in turn can lead to eating disorders, lip fillers, plastic surgery, depression and a low self-esteem (Carah & Dobson, 2016).

  There are luckily people out there who post real photos of their imperfections in the hope to make social media more real and to show young girls that they should feel comfortable in the skin they are in. These people include influencers such as Sarah Nicole Landry, who advocates for girls to be happy in the skin they are in and to not compare themselves to others (“Sarah Nicole Landry (@thebirdspapaya) • Instagram photos and videos”, 2020).  Although this is a positive light on the situation, the people posting these real photos would probably amount to 5% of social media pages, whereas the edited, ‘perfect’ photos flood social media and have much more of an overwhelming presence, due to Instagram’s ‘Algorithmic Hotness’ (Carah & Dobson, 2016).

These unattainable photos would not be as much of an issue if young people did not spend as much time on social media; but unfortunately, they do. Over the past 5 years young people have increased the amount of time they spend consuming media by an hour and seventeen minutes daily, from 6 hours 21 minutes to 7 hours 38 minutes, almost the amount of time most adults spend at work each day, except that young people use media seven days a week instead of five (Berger, 2012). Not only do young people spend this much time engulfed in social media, they can also use several devices at once. They can be watching tv and be on their phone checking several different social media apps, leaving little time for them to be in reality, therefore they are not giving their mind a break from the critical online world (Berger, 2012).

Social media is not only an issue for young women, though there are a lot of studies to suggest that young women have the most issues stemming from social media (O’Keefee & Clarke-Pearson). The reason for this was investigated in a journal article by O’Keefee & Clarke-Pearson. The article explains how children and adolescents have limited capacity for self-regulations and they are very susceptible to peer pressure, which is why they struggle the most with social media. They do not have the ability to just close their account or not get invested in it, as they do not want to be the only one not online out of their peers (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011). This article also explains how recent research has shown that there are a lot of online expressions of offline behaviours, such as bullying, clique-forming, cyberbullying, and ‘sexting’. These issues can have a profound affect on young women who are trying to form their identity and may be constantly questioning themselves due to bullying or pressure. (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011).

The implications of these offline behaviours showing up online, is that young people do not have the ability to self-regulate like adults do (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011). Adults and older people still have been affected by online bullying and trolling, especially famous people, though young teenagers are going through puberty and have hormones raging through their bodies, so their responses to bullying and trolling are heightened (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011).

Cyberbullying and peer-pressure to look a certain way can take a huge tole on a young impressionable women’s life; and because of social media, bullying and peer-pressure doesn’t stop when you are in the comfort of your own home away from school or work. Cyberbullying and trolling are a much more intense form of bullying as you do not get a break from the bullying. Being online means you can be bullied via social media apps day and night without getting a break from it, which can take a toll on one’s mental health. It is not as easy as just blocking and deleting the bully, as they can make a fake account in approximately 20 seconds and can continue to harass you from many different accounts. It has been reported that nearly half of all teenagers have at some point, been the victim of cyberbullying, with a large number being young girls (Morales, 2011).

Social media platforms, Instagram and Facebook, have listened to the outcry from the public about the effects social media is having on the body image of young girls, and have responded with banning any ads on the social media sites that are promoting miracle diets and supplements to lose weight (Rosenbloom, 2020). Although this is a great step in the right direction in protecting our young women; the article shows that we still have a long way to go with a lot of similar ads still being shown and Instagram’s Algorithm of showing only attractive women still being in effect (Carah & Dobson, 2016).

The effects of social media on young women has had devastating effects over the years. One of the worst cases being a young Canadian girl Amanda Todd. Todd posted a YouTube video explaining that she was blackmailed into exposing her breasts via webcam, and that she has been intensely bullied online and that she was in a bad way. Todd unfortunately hung herself on October 10,2012 as a result of the bullying, leaving shockwaves around the world (“Suicide of Amanda Todd”, 2020). This is how serious the effects of social media can be. The pressure on young women to fit in can sway their identity formation into a different direction where they can do things, they are not proud of, which can lead to guilt and embarrassment (Cargill, 2019).

Cargill discusses how a survey discovered that social media creates a large sense of FOMO (Fear of Missing out) and interpersonal issues, especially in young women (Cargill, 2019). These interpersonal issues and FOMO can lead young women to make questionable choices, such as meeting up with men they have spoken to online, who they know nothing about, because their friends might be doing it, or the man has pressured them into it. When you sit behind a keyboard you can be anybody you want to be, you can make up lies about your personality, your lifestyle, things you enjoy, and you can pretend to be someone and say things you would never say in person. This can create a false sense of security between people who talk online and can lead to disaster for some young women (Cargill, 2019).

An example of this is a young woman who went on a tinder date with a man she had been talking to online. He had pretended to be someone she really clicked with and he said all the right things, which led to the date going well. This woman was later strangled to death by this man, he then did unspeakable things after that and was later jailed for her murder. Without social media, you would have to meet someone in person and build a repour based on that, rather than getting to know someone online who is pretending to be one person but is in fact a completely different person, ending in this tragedy (Hicks,2020). The added pressures and interpersonal issues that can affect the formation of a young women’s identity also contribute to some of these tragedies (Cargill, 2019). Without these issues, women might not choose to make certain decisions that perhaps they would not make without these factors influencing them.

These issues for young women are serious and crippling issues, ones that may never of arose without the evolution of social media sites. There is no way to abolish social media, it is a constant in our society and is used by billions of people, that is not changing. There are special teams within the police and online world to try and stop cyberbullying, online predators, peer-pressure and unhealthy Instagram algorithms; though the reality is, if you are on social media you are at risk of all of these things and there is no way to completely stop them happening. The more positive influencers we have on social media promoting healthy body images and self-love, the better. The more Instagram and Facebook continue to ban ads that promote miracle weight loss and diet supplements, the better. All these things will have a positive influence on the world of Social Media, though as of right now, Social Media is proven by the above articles to be harmful for the body image and formation of young women.

References

A look inside social Media’s impact on society. (2017, Feb 17). University Wire Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/docview/2027192627?accountid=10382

Berger, A. A., & Asa, B. A. (2012). Media and society : A critical perspective. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com

Carah, N., & Dobson, A. (2016). Algorithmic Hotness: Young Women’s “Promotion” and “Reconnaissance” Work via Social Media Body Images. Social Media + Society, 2(4), 205630511667288. doi: 10.1177/2056305116672885

Cargill, M. (2019). The relationship between social media addiction, anxiety, the fear of missing out, and interpersonal problems (Order No. 27525187). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2268994527). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/docview/2268994527?accountid=10382

Hicks, A. (2020). How Brit’s dream trip turned to tragedy after Tinder date with sick killer. Retrieved 5 April 2020, from https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/grace-millanes-tinder-date-death-20926706

Morales, M. (2011). Cyberbullying. Journal Of Consumer Health On The Internet, 15(4), 406-419. doi: 10.1080/15398285.2011.623593

O’Keeffe, G., & Clarke-Pearson, K. (2011). The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families. PEDIATRICS, 127(4), 800-804. doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-0054

Rosenbloom, C. (2020). Instagram and Facebook ban ‘miracle’ diet posts, but there’s much more work to do. Retrieved 25 April 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/instagram-and-facebook-ban-miracle-diet-posts-but-theres-much-more-work-to-do/2019/09/23/0829a872-de26-11e9-b199-f638bf2c340f_story.html

Suicide of Amanda Todd. (2020). Retrieved 5 April 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_of_Amanda_Todd

Sarah Nicole Landry (@thebirdspapaya) • Instagram photos and videos. (2020). Retrieved 25 April 2020, from https://www.instagram.com/thebirdspapaya/

12 replies on “Although body positivity communities exist, Social Media is harmful for the body image and identity formation of young women.”

Hi Nikki,

What a sensitive and important topic this one is! I am a nanny by trade and have had ages ranging from 4months to 12 years old in the six years I have been working in the profession. The impact of social media from such young ages is incredible and terrifying. You want to protect children from them though also as you mention in your paper the platforms are not going anywhere! I think in this day and age it is more about finding a balance where parents can teach their children about the sites and how to best protect themselves and how to use them appropriately. Perhaps this will happen more when the millennial generation begins to have children.

I think that social media can be a beautiful place if used well and if people are educated on trolls and what their goals are and to develop a thick skin against them.

I know that with social media I always compare myself to people especially people I see popping up on my boyfriends feed. It is interesting how this happens you could relate it to the same as if someones glance strays when you’re on a date. It is the same feeling though now it is in my living room. I am not unattractive and I am by no means overweight though these things still effect me which is exactly the point you are making about the detrimental effects of social media.

I actually deleted my old Instagram account to create a new one and only followed people whom I was truly close with. Trying to get back to why I created social media accounts in the first place.

It is interesting that you mention FB and Insta are ‘stopping’ diet ads. I was on FB just yesterday and saw an ad for one of those tea diets. Do you think perhaps the sites struggle with caring for their users but also bringing in revenue that has clear targets that are also their main users? It is a hard job to keep everyone happy at the end of the day!

Hi Emily,

Thanks so much for that kind feedback, I really appreciate it, and I am glad to see that you could resonate with the paper; showing how real the issue is.

I completely agree; it is the same as seeing someone on a date and comparing yourself to how they look, although now that is constant as we scroll through our phone on our couch in track pants!

I definitely think that social media sites care very little about the effects on society and more about making money, as harsh as that sounds. They did the push to ban miracle diet ads, but as you said, there are still many on there.

I think they want to have a good reputation by saying they will make these positive steps, but they won’t take these positive steps far enough to the point where it will lose them money, which is really sad.

I want to be optimistic that in the future things might change, for the young girls of our futures sake, but I just can’t see that happening at the moment.

Hello Nikki!
First off – congrats on tackling such a big topic. My paper was about social media with youth and I tried to avoid it as it is such a large issue needing to be discussed properly. Good work!
I enjoyed your discussion of comparison, and then further argument about the implications of this behaviour. It was good to see your sources referenced with each claim made, knowing that there is research to back yourself up.
I liked how you referenced FOMO as it really is such a significant feeling nowadays. I also like that you included a case study as well! I would have enjoyed one that related more closely to FOMO or more of an exploration of that but it was still an informative read.
One of my favorite posts when it comes to body positivity has to be pictures of a before and after, or a photograph of how different poses can distort your body shape. A theorist named Ernst Gombrich explores how photographs represent reality in his book the Image and the Eye. It’s from 1958, and it’s still very relevant today. He discusses how photos are just a representation, but are often mistaken for the real thing. Would you agree that the majority of young females don’t recognise that social media is not real life, thinking that these fake posed bodies are realistic portrayals?
Thank you for the read!
Anne-Marie

Hi Anne!

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on my paper, I really appreciate it.
I agree, the before and after shots are so heavily edited and are not authentic yet they have such a negative impact on young girls, which is really upsetting seeing as most of the time the images are not even real, purely photoshopped.
I’ve never heard of that image but I’m going to go and have a look at it now as I love things like that.
Thanks for reading!
Nikki

Hi Nikki,
Thanks for your paper, you do a terrific job in exposing the harm social media is inflicting on the development of young women. I had never heard of “Algorithmic Hotness”, but once you explained it wasn’t a shock. One point you make about girls constantly questioning themselves due to bullying and pressure, that influences identity formation is an interesting argument. I think the affordances of social media should also offer the opposite, for instance shouldn’t they be able to easily connect with like-minded people and develop and develop an identity that transcends just their inner circle? That it’s not the case would insinuate the offline world is still a powerful influence. An additional measure I believe Instagram took was to hide the amount of likes people get, but attempts such as this may be subverted with features like the Hotness Algorithm you mention. In all, enjoyed reading your paper and definitely learnt a thing or two.
If your looking for one to read in the Communities and Online Gaming category, mine can be found here:

http://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020OUA/2020/04/25/more-than-a-game-levelling-up-relationships/

Thanks,
Craig

Hi Craig,

Thanks for your comment!
I definitely don’t think the hotness algorithm would be a shock to many people at all, as it is very obvious when you are on the site isn’t it?
Yes I was very impressed when they hid the amount of likes people were getting, that was such a positive step. I also do agree that Instagram and social media in general can be great for people meeting like-minded people and has a lot of positive attributes; I just don’t think body image for young girls is one of those positive influences that is on there. Hopefully the steps continue to be taken to improve the sites and make them safer.
I will have a read of your paper this afternoon, I am looking forward to it!
Thanks,
Nikki

Hi Nikki,
Excellent topic and excellent paper! I think what you argued is spot on, something that has been an issue since social media came to rise and quite frankly, one I believe has not decreased in harm enough.
Kids and young teenagers absorb everything and learn from their environment and what they are exposed to. With social media being so accessible, it has become their biggest teacher when it comes to body image and the way they should look, and unfortunately what they are being taught is if you don’t look perfect then your body is ‘wrong’.
It was great how you touched on the women who do post natural images or images with no makeup, but I think at this point that is still too uncommon, as you stated. From my experience with social media, these women are often considered ‘brave’ for posting photos without filters or touch ups. It is still not normalised enough.
I work with young children, and some of the things I hear them discuss, or the knowledge they have on different diets and the awareness they have of their bodies at such a young age is a bit scary. I think back to when I was a young girl, a lot of what I thought about my body didn’t come until high school, and even then, it came from my own thoughts and observations, not from ideals that were being presented to me everyday.
Well done on addressing an issue that is still so important. I really enjoyed reading your paper!

Hi Georgia,

Thanks for your response.
I 100% agree, these women who post natural photos are seen as being brave when really that should just be normal to post a photo in your natural state with no editing; but unfortunately that is so rare on social media.
That is just heartbreaking to hear that young children talk like that, it’s just such a shame social media has had such a negative impact when it comes to body image, because it can be a really great tool in other areas, just not in this one!
Thanks so much for reading!
Nikki

Hi Nikki,
Your paper was an interesting look at issue’s I’ve definitely seen affect my younger sister, and many of her friends.

Your article made me think of a new phenomenon I’ve seen described as ‘Instagram face’; lots of young women are getting cosmetic procedures, doing their makeup, and editing their pictures in ways that have started to make many of their faces look very similar. Typically, a small sloped nose, a pointed chin, high cheekbones, full eyebrows, and larger lips. The resulting look tends to be rather racially ambiguous. I’ve heard it also tends to look better on camera, almost looking a little unreal in real life.

It also made me think of how common it is for people to FaceTune the pictures they upload to Instagram. Around five years ago I remember it being a popular opinion that Photoshopped and retouched images in magazines and billboard ads were bad; that they gave people unrealistic body expectations. Celebrities used to try hide that they’d had their photos retouched! And now influencers post tutorials on how they use Facetune. It’s alarming how quickly this sort of thing has become normalised again.
Chloe

Hi Chloe!

That is so scary that so many people are going to such drastic measures to change their appearance, and that it has almost become normal to do so. If you think back even 10 years, it would be a massive thing to change the look of your face cosmetically. I worry that with everyone going for a similar look they may lose or forget their uniqueness.

It definitely is a scary time for body image, but we can only keep our fingers crossed that it will start to go the other way again with all the body positive movements that are starting up!

Thanks for reading and sharing your views,
Nikki

Hi Chloe,

What a great paper, I’m only sorry I found it so late in the conference. This really resonated with me as I remember when Instagram first rose in popularity and how my school friends and I would sit around scrolling through pages and pages of gorgeous girls in bikinis comparing ourselves to them and bemoaning the fact that we could never be as beautiful. Fast forward to today and the body positive movements on Instagram are doing great things for female self confidence and have definitely reinforced that there is no ‘body standard’ we should all aspire to, I also agree that this is merely a silver lining. You pointed out that ‘Instagram uses an ‘Algorithmic Hotness’ where only the most beautiful bodies and faces are featured and I think that this perefectly proves your point. I follow a lot of body postive pages and although this has improved my explore page greatly, there are still TONNES of images and accounts I have no affinity with popping up. I think such a problem is truely systemic and a few pages where this is not the case, cannot create change without the support of the platfrom itself. A great piece, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and getting myself all riled up haha!
Jess

Hi Nikki,

I really enjoyed reading your paper and loved your topic.

Here are some of my thoughts/questions –

1. “Social media sites such as Instagram contain photos only, and there are so many filters and apps that can edit a photo to make you look flawless. These apps can remove blemishes, can make you look slimmer, and can basically make you look like you have zero imperfections.”
– Do you think that if these apps and capabilities didn’t exist, that young women would enjoy a more relaxed and body positive environment when on social media?

2. “There are luckily people out there who post real photos of their imperfections in the hope to make social media more real and to show young girls that they should feel comfortable in the skin they are in.”
– It is so good that there are women online that are breaking the cycle and showing a more authentic image online although I definitely think this is rare to find.

3. “Social media is not only an issue for young women, though there are a lot of studies to suggest that young women have the most issues stemming from social media (O’Keefee & Clarke-Pearson).”
– Do you think that these issues are prevalent in young men too? Also, do you think young men and the pressures from them influence the behaviours of young women online?

4. “Social media platforms, Instagram and Facebook, have listened to the outcry from the public about the effects social media is having on the body image of young girls, and have responded with banning any ads on the social media sites that are promoting miracle diets and supplements to lose weight (Rosenbloom, 2020).”
– This is a great move in the right direction. I hadn’t noticed the change but now that you mention it, I actually haven’t seen any posts of this nature recently.

5. “An example of this is a young woman who went on a tinder date with a man she had been talking to online.”
– This story is so tragic. I recently watched a YouTube video where a 30+ year old woman disguised herself as young teenage girls online. I believe she was a part of a private investigation where they were targeting paedophiles online and were able to make many arrests. It’s disgusting to think that this goes on, but unfortunately it does. It is great that there are people out there trying to put a stop to this though.

Overall, this was a very interesting read. Thank you for bringing to light some very scary but real issues.

All the best,
Emily

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