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Artificial Intelligence, body image and toxic expectations

Since ChatGPT started hitting headlines, there has been growing concern around the sophistication of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools and their impact on children, especially on social media. These programs have the power to control what young people see online or alter images and videos discretely. The consequences of this can be stark, resulting in the promotion of unrealistic body image and toxic masculinity. This can leave children feeling insecure about their appearance or exclude them because they don’t fit the ‘norm’. We explore the potential risks of AI on young people and how to tackle them. 


AI-powered image editing

girl takes a picture of herself in the mirror

AI-powered image editing 

There is a growing trend for social media platforms to have filters and design software to include AI-powered image editors and image generators. This means, at the click of a button people can alter a picture to change the way they or somebody else looks. This could be smoothing skin, altering facial features, or even changing someone’s body shape. In fact, the tech has become so sophisticated you can even create a completely made-up, and scarily realistic, image dreamt up entirely by machine learning. 

On first glance this might seem harmless, but it can quickly become toxic. There is already a lot of pressure put on young people through the images they see in magazines and on social media about body image and identity. Being able to alter appearances and post it online could create even more unrealistic beauty standards and distort young people's view of themselves. 

Algorithmic bias and discrimination 

In fact, an eating disorder awareness group asked an AI tool to generate the ‘most desirable’ man and woman. The ‘perfect’ women had blonde hair, tanned skin, brown eyes, and a slim figure, while the 'perfect' man had chiseled cheekbones, brown eyes, and defined muscles. 

What becomes clear from this is the over-simplification of what beauty is. The AI results pander to outdated stereotypes and reveal the tool's limitations and implicit biases. Algorithms used by platforms to recommend content often prioritize images and videos that conform to western conventional beauty standards. This can limit the diversity of body types and appearances represented online, making those who don't fit these standards feel excluded or inadequate. 

project worker talking to young man while sitting down on a basketball court

TikTok's and children’s mental health

TikTok has taken the world by storm. While on the surface it seems like a harmless app filled with dance, singing and life hacks, there has been a darkside brewing.

Young people are susceptible to societal influences

Young people are particularly susceptible to societal influences and therefore more likely to strive for what is constantly being promoted to them. This can lead to stress, anxiety, and even depression as they compare themselves to the heavily edited and filtered images they see online. 

On top of this, AI-driven advertising often targets young people with content that reinforces these unrealistic beauty standards. These targeted ads can heighten feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, as young people are bombarded with messages that suggest they need to change their appearance to be accepted or successful. 

Empowering young people through digital literacy

Empowering young people through digital literacy

Young people spend a huge chunk of their lives on the internet and that isn’t about to change. While we’ve outlined some of the risks, it isn’t all bad. The internet can be a space for young people to connect, explore their identity and get their voices heard.    

Protecting children from harmful content is important, but we also have a duty to help young people understand the platforms’ risks and make informed decisions about what to view and how they view it. This should start at home, but also schools should be teaching digital literacy, such as critical thinking and appraising images.  

Teenagers looking at laptop in school with teacher behind them

Artificial Intelligence

The way we use AI and the values we teach young people will play a strong role in reducing the negative impacts. Children should be educated about the artificial nature of AI generated and filtered images, helping them understand that they often don’t represent reality. Encouraging and promoting open conversations about body image and self-esteem can also provide the right environment for young people to discuss their feelings and concerns. Further to this, the focus shouldn’t all be on the responsibility of young people. There have also been strong calls to force influencers and advertisers to declare digitally altered photos on social media. 

You can find out more about our work fighting to keep young people safe online.

Author: Edward Herbert