ABSTRACT: This paper focuses on the impact of social media and social media influencers on the construction of self-esteem and body image within adolescent males. Social networking sites have changed the way in which users not only interact with others but how they develop and interact with themselves. The constant exposure to a vast range of media, influences the ways in which users construct their own identity. The overall image that emerges from the literature depicts a negative correlation between the use of social media and adolescent males whilst developing self-esteem and their identity. This paper will discuss how social media influencers such as Elliot Burton are promoting unrealistic body ideals, as well as how these platforms influence the content in which users interact with to reinforce certain beliefs and values of the male physique.
With the constant development and ease of accessibility for many social media platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, younger users are being exposed to a diverse range of content online, which may have the potential to influence their own self-perception. These online social media platforms enable adolescent males to build and interact with a virtual community. While affordances of Instagram such as image sharing, hashtags, and commenting enable celebrity influencers like Elliot Burton to promote health and well-being, this can have a negative and damaging influence on viewers’ perceptions of what is an ideal male body. This influence that these influencers possess, assists them to spread these messages to an ever-growing global audience generating and promoting unrealistic expectations for many adolescent males and significantly impacting their body image and self-esteem.
The need and desire for the ‘ideal body’ has been engrained into our lives since we can remember. Exposure to different types of media from a young age are becoming part of childhood development, and children in general are now spending more and more times consuming media. Traditional media such as film have promoted unrealistic body ideals to viewers for years. Asawarachan (2013) suggests that, Disney films play a significant role in the development of children’s role models and values compared to traditionally conventional forms of learning, including schools, families, and religious institutions. Due to Disney’s innocence in family entertainment, many people openly accept the messages presented. Furthermore, Disney characters uphold the stereotype of “what is beautiful is good” (Bazzini, Curtin, Joslin, Regan & Martz, 2010). This early influence of early traditional media is supported by Harrison (2000) suggesting both young boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 10 showed a positive correlation between viewing television and film and body concerns. As younger members of society are becoming more technologically competent, they are being exposed to the diverse world that is social media. These social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are significantly altering their beliefs and values from an earlier age, mimicking those impacts of traditional media and are presenting unrealistic expectations of health and beauty. Rodgers, et al. (2020, p. 400) state that, “exposure to such idealized images on adolescents’ own body image, which may in turn lead them to engage in disordered eating behaviours and muscle building behaviours, in the pursuit of these appearance ideals”. This shows how easily developing children react to what is presented to them through media channels on the construction of their identity and how presenting an unrealistic ideal can impact them for the rest of their life. This idea of the ideal body image varies between societies, cultures, and time, however, “It can be linked to critical physiological and psychological perceptions that can have serious, persistent, and even life-threatening outcomes for adolescents”. (Asawarachan,2013, p. 3, as cited by Johnson & Taylor, 2008). Furthermore, the role of print media such as magazines enable large viewership without needing direct attention from the audience. Walker, (2012, p. 2) states that, “Magazines are widely published and visually accessible to a large proportion of people. Even non-magazine readers are exposed to their covers as they are blatantly available in stores and newsstands.”. This ability to reach unsuspecting audiences fills in the gaps that other medians miss. Walker, (2012) continues by suggesting that even though male health and fitness magazines claim to promote and focus on health and fitness, they are heavily focused on the ideal male physique and the importance of achieving this body (as cited by, Boni, 2002; Gray & Ginsberg, 2007; Pope et al., 2000). This focus of an ideal male physique and achieving a perfect body has continued onto social media platforms as technologies have advanced and evolved, being ever more present within daily lives. Research at Pew Research Centre (2018) suggests that 45% of teenagers use the internet ‘almost constantly’. This proves how exposed adolescents are to consume influential media every day. De Vries, Peter, Nikken, & de Graaf (2014) suggests that visual oriented platforms such as Instagram and YouTube encourage users to post personal pictures and videos to their profiles, and gives others the ability to view, comment, and judge what you’re presenting. Trifiro (2018, p. 5) states that, “image-based social media posts have demonstrably different effects on users’ moods than text-based social media posts.”. These platforms have mimicked the role of traditional media by pushing a precedent on physical appearance to users via image-based platforms. Medvedev, Wu, & Gordon, (2019) explore how Instagram’s discover page works at generating content for users. They state that the software searches for pages that a user has interacted with before, either by; following, liking, commenting, sharing, and or saving, and then searches for other pages similar to push onto a user’s discover page. This curated discover page may result with a user getting stuck in a constant cycling of unrealistic body images due to previous interaction, resulting in constant reinforcement of an idealistic male physique. As a result, both traditional and social media significantly influence body perception of adolescent males to an unrealistic expectation. This shift to social media is resulting in more exposure to these expectations, normalising and reinforcing beliefs to adolescent males and lowering their self-esteem.
With the constant evolution of the internet from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0, social media has taken over, enabling users to further create and interact with their online community, as well as discover a vast world of other networks. Burns (2008) suggests that social media refers to technologies that enable humans to interact, collaborate and connect with one another, online. In addition, Yang (2014) suggests that social networks have changed the way in which adolescents perceive themselves and construct their own identity, going past the traditional social attributes to more personal and influential factors such as ‘who am I’. Binalrimal (2019, p. 63) states that, “Nowadays, the use of social media has become an essential part of our daily lives. Most people rely on social media for entertainment, data gathering, and communication. The use of social media has transformed our society into a village where people can create, share, exchange data and interact easily.” Due to the expanding reliance on social media, we have seen a rise in users who have larger influence than others on these platforms. Jan-Frederik (2019) suggests that these influencers have arisen due to people idealising their identity and message online. As a result, social media influencers such as Richard Duchon have become a significant part of adolescent male’s lives, influencing their beliefs and values, including perceived perception of aesthetics, resulting in the desire to change one’s self physically. Walker, (2012) argues that, while celebrities and social media influences idealized figures are nearly impossible to achieve, they have set a societal standard that many people still strive to achieve. The subsequent pressure to match these standards may impact male body perceptions and exercise related beliefs. Social expectations have influenced both males and females for years, however with the access to social media, monitoring and viewing other people has positioned social expectations on aesthetics and beauty in the forefront of media consumption. Smith and Kim (2007, p. 49) state that “social envy is an unpleasant and often painful blend of feelings characterized by inferiority, hostility, and resentment caused by a comparison with a person or group of persons who possess something we desire.” This feeling of envy is being heightened by adolescent’s access to unrealistic expectations at earlier ages. This idea of envy is supported by Rodger et al., (2020, p. 400) “Male adolescents in Singapore suggested that comparisons with peers and celebrities on social media were associated with higher body dissatisfaction and drive for muscularity”. These social media influencers, especially health and fitness influencers do try to promote health and well-being content through the use of workout routines, and common advice surrounding diets, however their unrealistic body image is causing a negative effect on male adolescent viewers. Rodgers, Slater, Gordon, McLean, Jarman, & Paxton (2020, p. 400) state that “These characteristics increase the opportunities for unfavourable appearance comparisons, that is, upward comparisons with individuals judged to be more attractive than oneself.” However, Byrne, Kearney, & MacEvilly (2017, p.76) state that, “Many influencers are not registered dietitians or qualified nutritionists and often share false or misleading nutritional information with no scientific evidence; this can negatively impact diet and health.”. This underqualification of many influencers within the health and fitness industry may further impact adolescent males by providing false information, making their idealised body harder to obtain.
With the launce of Instagram in 2010, social networking platforms saw a new chapter of connectedness. Trifiro argues that the development of image-based social media platforms such as Instagram not only connect members of their social networks like previous platforms, but “visually engage with them through online pictures.”. (Trifiro, 2018, p. 3). Nierengarten (2017, p. 21) states that, “that users are both consumers and creators of the content.”. The ability to both view and publishes content creates a constant cycle for audiences being subjected to unrealistic images online, then feeling the need to try and post idealised images of themselves to feel a sense of gratification from followers. The ability to create an online identity provides many adolescent males the power to present themselves in the most idealistic way to either conform with societal pressures, or to mimic social media influencers. Fox, Bacile, Nakhata, & Weible (2018, p. 15) state that, “the actual self-concept represents how an individual sees him or herself in actuality (i.e. in everyday life), whereas the ideal self represents how an individual would like to be seen by others.”. This ability to present their ideal self is facilitated through the use of social media platforms such as Instagram. Fox et al. (2018) continue by suggesting that Instagram is used as almost a visual diary for users, posting and depicting special occasions or when they’re looking at their best. This search for posting themselves at their best points is supported by Pilgrim & Bohnet-Joschko (2019, p. 7), stating that “the urge for perfectionism and being thin as an ideal of beauty are exactly those user groups who feel more attracted to social networks in order to experience confirmation and satisfy their personal need for security.”. As a result, these users who feel the need to search for perfection are often heavily influenced by those who they follow on social media. As these users search for perfection, they often alter their own appearance to mimic what they are seeing online from their role models and in the search for peer acceptance. Goffman (1959, p. 121), states that, “Sometimes the individual will act in a thorough calculating manner, expressing himself in a given way solely in order to give the kind of impression to others that is likely to evoke from a specific response he is concerned to obtain.”. As a result, adolescent males will position their online social identity to conform to what their peers and role models are doing to generate a response of acceptance. Goffman (1959) continues to suggest that, although some responses even though they may be passive, any interaction with ones presented self may reinforce their idealistic representation, continuing to support this ideal image of themselves and what is considered to be perfect. As adolescents are continuously being exposed to unrealistic expectations online, they will try to replicate these expectations to feel a sense of self-worth and to fit in with societal ideologies.
In conclusion, the development and consistent use of social networking sites, such as Instagram has provided affordances for fitness influencers to teach others about health and wellbeing, however, has led to the impact of adolescent male’s construction of identity and influenced their perception of what it means to be attractive. Instagram has not only enabled users to establish connections and networks online but has provided a platform for them to discover new ideologies about self-image. This evolution of media from traditional to now social media, has further normalised the unrealistic expectations of what is considered beautiful and attractive, becoming a societal norm for adolescents around the world.
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