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Limit negative impacts on body image, self-esteem for children

Updated: May 10, 2023

Emma, 13, is a beautiful, healthy, outgoing girl with a smile that brightens the day of everyone around her. Recently, Emma’s mood seems different. She is quiet and avoids interaction. Emma stays in her room a lot and barely eats. Emma’s mom worries. On the way to school, Emma’s mom compliments Emma, telling her she looks beautiful. But Emma starts crying. “No, I’m not beautiful, mom. I need to lose weight.”

Rachel Fuller, forensic interviewer for the Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center, reminds everyone that many of the images online are edited and don’t represent reality. Fuller’s message for children and adults is that they don’t need photo effects and filters to be perfect.

Emma, just like many children, has experienced a negative impact on self-esteem and body image.

“Sometimes the negative influences can be serious and long-lasting,” said Joyce Prusak, executive director of Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center. “Parents must act to protect their children.”

Concerns related to appearance have become common among youth and media, and sexualized images, specifically, may have a negative impact on body image. Studies show that exposure to sexualized media correlates with negative body image. Body image concerns affect both boys and girls, but research shows that girls are more likely to be unhappy with their weight and the way they look. Sexualized messages have negative implications for how they feel about their bodies, according to a study, titled “Little girls in a grown up world: Exposure to sexualized media, internalization of sexualization messages, and body image in 6–9 year-old girls.”

According to the American Psychological Association, sexualization occurs when: a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal; the standard of physical attractiveness equates with being sexy; a person is sexually objectified; or sexuality is inappropriately imposed on a person. The sexualization and objectification of girls have negative consequences, such as depression, lower self-esteem and body dissatisfaction. Girls see sexualized images on various media and platforms.

Instagram is one of the apps linked to having damaging impacts on body image and mental health for girls. According to internal research of Instagram’s owner, Facebook (now Meta), the app has worsened body image issues for 30% of girls. In another study of teenagers, more than 40% of Instagram users said they felt “unattractive” and that the feeling started when using the app.

Studies suggest it would be helpful to limit children’s access to sexualized media images. But the reality is it’s impossible to eliminate all access to sexualized media messages and to apps that might lead to damaging effects.

Help children navigate online world safely

Parents and educators must help children navigate the online world safely by providing information and media literacy.

Parents need to tell children that the representations they see online often do not reflect reality. Parents need to encourage youth to make their own posts on social media more realistic. Ask your children to avoid using filters when posting their photos and explain that many users enhance their pictures, making their bodies and faces look in a way that’s not realistic. Your children shouldn’t try to conform to a standard that’s not real. Boost your children’s confidence by telling them their value is not based on the way they look and beauty doesn’t equate with a certain standard of appearance that’s popular on social media. As a parent, you have a great influence on your child’s attitude and understanding of what is beautiful and valuable. Be a good role model for appropriate behavior and teach your daughter or son that girls are valued for aspects that are more significant than physical appearance. It’s also very important for these messages to be reinforced by educators and society.

Media literacy will help protect your children. Research shows that girls who have received media literacy education have higher self-esteem and body satisfaction. An important aspect of media literacy is helping children think critically about text and image messages they encounter. According to “Media Education and Body Image,” asking the following questions will help you start conversations: Who created this message and what is its purpose? What body shapes are shown more positively and more negatively and what conclusions might audiences reach based on these images? Who will make money from this message and how does that influence the message? What were the costs related to creating this image? How does this image make you feel? If you had a chance to create a similar image, what would you do differently?

By asking these questions, you will help children realize that text and image messages don’t always represent reality; messages are often used for financial gains; and that messages may have a real impact on people’s feelings. As important school settings are for media literacy, that education must start at home.

For more information about child safety, follow Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center on social media and explore our website. Coffee County CAC provides services for children who have experienced severe abuse. The center’s programs and services include family advocacy, forensic interviews, prevention education, therapy and medical exams. All services are free for children and their families.

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