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Social Media: Creating Unrealistic Expectations

Image used with permission of Elle Hunt

It’s a miserable, wet day in June and I’m sitting on my couch preoccupying my time scrolling through social media to find some resemblance of summer. Pictures of sunkissed, toned bodies posing like they were modeling for Vogue, to videos of Instagrammers working out on the beach showing you how to get this summer’s bubble bottom flood my screen. Of course my feed is tailored to my interests: food, fitness, health, beauty, fashion, so it’s not showing me anything I don’t want to see. Instead it makes me want to throw out all the chocolate in my house, get my gym gear on and start working out so I can be as healthy and toned as the people I am looking at. Of course that thought is fleeting; it’s raining outside and I like my chocolate too much! It does make me wonder though, how do daily images of perceived perfection impact today’s youth?

In 2018, CyberSafeIreland published its third annual report which showed that despite age restrictions, 70% of 8-13 year olds are using social media, with Snapchat being the most popular app (47%), followed by Instagram (36%). Snapchat is a multimedia messaging app that has risen in popularity due to its principal feature where messages and videos are only viewable by the recipient for a short period of time. However, it’s Snapchat filters that takes over the headlines these days: from switching genders to the classic beauty filters, it offers something for everyone. Filters are the line-erasing, zit-blasting, imperfection-blurring tool of the online world and I can completely see the attraction of such tools, especially on a bad skin day. Unfortunately, the increased use of such filters has created a new mental illness called ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’ where people seek out plastic surgery to look like a filtered version of themselves. Filters are not just a Snapchatphenomenon. In the age of selfie-driven millennials, there are multiple apps offering these features such as FacetuneInstagram and Facebook. And it’s not just apps. Most mobile devices have inbuilt filtering features embedded in their cameras with the ‘beauty’ feature automatically applied when in selfie mode…god forbid you take a selfie without it! On top of the normal pressures young people experience, they now have the increased pressure of their own technology pointing out their flaws.

Social media has created a culture of perfection and it does not stop at filtering. Throughout the years we have seen what the perceived image of a ‘perfect body’ is, from Marilyn Monroe’s curves, Kate Moss’ slim frame to the Kardashians’ hourglass figures. The ‘perfect body’ has changed over time depending on the influencers, such as celebrities, supermodels, reality stars and now social media stars. Instagram is flooded with pictures of celebrities and influencers showing off all their hard work in the gym. However these pictures are not necessarily true to life. In most cases the subject of the picture takes on a side pose to slim down their tummy and jut out their bottom to get today’s much sought after ‘Kardashian booty’. If the picture was taken at a different angle or even with different lighting, it may not have the same result. This leads to the now somewhat famous offline trend ‘the Brazilian buttlift’: some offer non-surgical procedures, others take ‘fat’ from elsewhere to insert it into the area to create this uplifted booty. A Dublin surgeon told us he has clients as young as 16 coming in to ask for this procedure, and he claims 18 is the youngest age of client on which he will carry this out. It’s these deceptive Instagram snaps that can put unrealistic expectations and pressure on young people and increase the percentage of children and young teens who suffer from body-related mental illness such as body dysmorphia, eating disorders and addictions (steroid use). 

The tough question is: how do you separate these illnesses from normal teenage anxiety when it comes to body image? There are certain behaviours which have been witnessed with young teens that may raise some red flags. Behaviours such as spending hours focused on what they perceive to be wrong with how they look, taking hundreds of selfies before they find the one that is Insta-worthy, seeking approval from friends by posting multiple photos on social media and deleting the ones that don’t get enough likes, feeling stressed, anxious or worried about their body image all the time and having a false perception of how they look. Do we need to bring them to our local pools or foreign beaches for them to realise that no matter what everyone is different? Sit them in front of Botched Up, a television show devoted to surgery going wrong – to show that even after surgery only the good ones will be shown on social media – when it all goes wrong this is not publicised. 

Over the decades, print media has played a huge role in both women and men’s body image, but it is social media that has changed how these images are consumed, with younger audiences having access to material, behaviours and opinions at the click of a button. Pro-eating disorder movements have spread across social media sharing images and tips promoting anorexia and bulimia using hashtags such as #proana, #ana, #bonespo. It’s hard to think that access to such material can be found so easily through a simple hashtag. Social media sites are moderating pro-eating disorder websites by blocking searches of these hashtags or applying a pop-up asking the user if they need help, however these blocks are easy to evade with a slight change of the hashtag name e.g. #thinspiration can be changed to #thynspiration. If you suspect your child may have an eating disorder, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, Bodywhys, offers help and support for people who may be affected.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. The body positivity movement is also strong on social media with influencers starting to recognise the need for change and love the body we were given. Influencers are starting to come clean about the different tricks they use to make their bodies look Insta-perfect due to how they position their bodies or the lighting they use, showing us the before and after results. The #NoMakeup movement has stormed across our feeds with celebrities such as Alicia Keys and Gwyneth Paltrow showing us what they really look like without makeup and filters. Brands such as Boots and Dove have started to use different body images to promote their products and fuel a body positive culture.

The strive for the ‘perfect body’ is not new: it has been around for decades but seems to be highlighted more by the rise of social media. It’s a complicated issue with sometimes devastating effects. I don’t think body image concerns are ever going to go away; we all have our insecurities and as we move through different stages of our lives our concerns and insecurities change. In saying that, the teenage years are one of the most difficult times in anyone’s life and it’s made even harder with the added pressure of social media. If you have a young teen in your life, it’s important to talk to them about how social media can manipulate reality. Show them the tricks that influencers use to get that perfect photo and how this is far removed from real life. Be aware of who your child is following on social media platforms and ask them questions about their favourite Instagrammer. Do your own investigations on the content which the Instagrammer shares. By taking the time to talk to your child and find out how they view certain social media images you can help embed a more body-positive culture. In the words of RuPaul, ‘If you don’t love yourself how the hell are you going to love somebody else.’

Posted on:

Sep 27, 2019

Caroline O'Neill (Cyber Ninja)

Caroline is one of the longest serving members of our cyber ninja research team and has over 10 years experience working within the technology sector in Ireland. She has always had an interest in cyber security and had an IADIS paper published on primary school children’s internet usage and associated safety implications.