Posted: 03 October 2018

Children, body image and the media

From the media, social media and gender stereotypes, there are lots of reasons why children could be worried about their appearance or body image. Body image isn’t just about how we look. It is tied up with body confidence, self-worth, and a number of other factors.

How does negative body image affect children?

As young people grow, they develop attitudes towards themselves, their relationships and their aspirations. Developing a negative body image or low self-esteem as a child could have a lasting impact.

It can lead to a sense of low self-worth, which can have many negative effects on a child’s development.  

Low self-esteem has been shown to lower aspirations in school, contribute to risky behaviours such as drug and alcohol misuse or unsafe sex, and can lead to eating disorders, self-harm and poor mental health.

This year, the NHS reported a surge in the number of teenage girls being admitted to hospital for eating disorders. In just six years, admissions for anorexia in young people has nearly doubled in the UK.

Our 2018 The Good Childhood Report found a lower sense of well-being among children – particularly girls – who were exposed to jokes or comments about other people’s bodies and looks.

Where does the media come in?

Whether it’s a slim, toned body for girls or a tall, muscled physique for boys, the media have been known to perpetuate a ‘benchmark’ of attractiveness for society to strive towards.

Many young people judge themselves – and others – against this benchmark, producing a pressure to be perfect.

In a report by the Advertising Association, nearly half of girls (47%) agreed that seeing thin models in adverts made them conscious of the way they looked, and made them want to diet or lose weight.

Over a third (37%) said that seeing airbrushed models in adverts made them want to look like those models, with one 13 year old girl commenting,

‘I just sometimes wish that I was that skinny and that tall.’

A recent controversial ‘beach-body ready’ campaign was found to directly target individuals to ‘make them feel physically inferior to the unrealistic body image of the bronzed model, in order to sell their product’.

It was also reported that adverts for cosmetic surgery aired during ITV’s most-watched programme ever, Love Island, contributed to a rising mental health crisis in young people.

What can be done about negative body image and the media?

It’s natural for young people to look at their surroundings for inspiration. But unlike previous generations, children today are constantly exposed to the media through social platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

There is no hiding children from the media, so it’s important to encourage them to look at it with a critical eye.

We all have a part to play in educating young people about the unrealistic body image that is often portrayed in the media - making sure young people know that adverts are often unrealistic portrayals of everyday life and people and pointing out airbrushed images can help.

There are promising steps being taken with the body positivity movement in some advertising and media outlets.

Young people can also be encouraged to draw their self-worth from sources beyond their looks. With more positive role models, hobbies, and guidance, the media will have less power to shape how children value themselves.

For more information on the state of children’s well-being in the UK, read this year's The Good Childhood Report.

Read the good childhood report


By Lucy

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