The Truth About How Instagram Affects Teen Girls’ Body Image
“Just being on Instagram isn’t harmful, it’s how you use it,” Dr. Fardouly said. When we look only at the potential negative effects of social media on teenagers, we’re also ignoring the ways it can have a good influence. Dr. Fardouly has done studies showing that body-positive content depicting a range of shapes and sizes and parodies of thin-ideal content may boost young women’s moods — though the research is preliminary.
How Parents Can Help Girls Push Back
As individuals, we can’t control what social media giants like Instagram blast into the ether, or how their algorithms work. But as parents we can mitigate the effects of images that potentially make our kids feel worse about themselves. First, we need to control the entry point to social media, Dr. Radesky said. If your child is under 13, they’re not supposed to be starting their own accounts, because collecting data on children is against U.S. privacy laws.
If your kids are interested in social media because it allows them to connect with other kids while we’re still in a pandemic, you can encourage them to use apps like iMessage or FaceTime, which allow them to chat without “likes or social comparison or posting out to followers.” Those tools also align better with the kind of socializing they’re doing in person, Dr. Radesky said. If they’re interested in something like TikTok, you can explore that app with them, monitoring what they’re seeing, she said.
Starting your kids off with social media literacy at a young age is an essential tool, said Dr. Yolanda N. Evans, an associate professor at the University of Washington Department of Pediatrics who specializes in adolescent medicine. For example, she said that if you observe your kid looking at an ultra-manicured photo of a friend, you can say something like: “‘I noticed that picture of so-and-so looks professional, how many takes do you think they took to get it?’ It helps them think critically about what they’re seeing.”
If your kids are older and already on social media, you can encourage them to curate their feeds so that they’re not just getting #fitspo and extremely thin bodies. And try to model good tech hygiene yourself, Dr. Evans said, whether it’s a family rule that there are no phones at dinner or after 9 p.m. She recommends this American Academy of Pediatrics interactive media plan, which you can customize for your own family’s needs.
I have no illusions that my girls will always feel good about their bodies. I am certainly not eager for them to be on social media, particularly from a data privacy perspective. But I am glad that I can arm them now, while they’re still listening, with the weapons to push back against the thin ideal wherever they encounter it.