Impact of Social Media on Young People’s Body Image

2854 words (11 pages) Essay in Psychology

22/02/19 Psychology Reference this

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A critical analysis of the ways that media and social media affect young people’s body image

The effect media and social media has on young people has become more prominent in recent years. Many young people have low self-esteem caused by comparing themselves to each other online. Furthermore, young people are constantly surrounded by adverts using models with unrealistic body types and it is because of this among other reasons that there are such high reports of young people with eating disorders. The majority of sources looked at in this discourse analysis come from a variety of newspaper articles as well as many academic sources. Most of the newspaper articles are fairly recent from between 2009 and 2017 whereas the academic literature is older with some dating back to 2000. This is so that we are able to see whether there has been a change over time. This essay has been split into three sections. The first looks at articles backed up by studies and how they compare, the second looks at who is to blame for a negative body image as well as who most articles are written for, the third section examines how academic literature compares to media sources and whether they agree or disagree with the findings.

Figure 1: Instagram

An article by The Independent (2017) looked at how social media can be very damaging to young girls through the use of hashtags such as ‘thinsperation’, ‘bonesperation’ and ‘fitsperation’. The article starts off by saying that there is an ‘alarmingly large number’ of accounts online that are ‘proano’ and encourage people to post photos of their emaciated bodies. The word ‘alarmingly’ suggests that there is a higher amount of accounts active than would have been expected and therefore the word is being used to scare the reader to show them how big the issue actually is. The article then goes on to talk about a study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders where they carry out a content analysis of hashtags on social media. The article goes on to say that the study found that there is a ‘staggering’ number of photos online using these hashtags. However, this is not what the study was looking at, instead it was analysing three hashtags and what kind of images appear under each one (Talbot, C et al, 2017). The article has chosen only to use the number of photos the study used rather than what the findings actually were. As well as this, the use of the word ‘staggering’ could be seen as an exaggeration in order to instil fear into the readers. Most of the readers of newspapers tend to be parents and therefore it could be assumed that the use of language is used in order to make parents follow their children’s social media more closely. Figure 1 shows an example of what would come up if the hashtag thinsperation was searched. Most of the images are seen in black and white and many don’t show their faces which could suggest that whilst they may like thin bodies they may be embarrassed or want to keep their identities hidden.

A Guardian (2017) article explored the idea that photos of peers on social media can have the biggest impact on body image. It starts off by using words such as ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ which are both negative words that may make the reader connect with the story, especially if they’ve felt the same way as the people being talked about. The article uses a study that appeared in the Body Image journal about the impact of appearance comparisons to back up its points. The newspaper article states that women are more likely to compare themselves to each other through photos on social media rather than through other forms of media. However, the study’s main finding was that negative comparisons occur most frequently when face to face compared to online (Fardouly, J et al, 2017). The article failed to mention this and decided to pick out information that would back up their story rather than what the study actually found. This article mentions the impact on body image in general rather than a specific gender. However, they only focused on a study with a small sample size of only 160 people and they were all girls. A study using a small sample size may not be as accurate as using multiple studies or a study with a large sample size and therefore the results would not be able to be generalised to a wider population.

Figure 2: https://themirrorreflects.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/real-life-barbies/

Barbies have often come under criticism for giving girls unrealistic expectations for body image, as seen in figure 2. An article written for an eating disorder help website claims that 90% of people that suffer with an eating disorder are girls between the ages of 12 and 25. It goes on to say that because they are girls they most likely played with Barbies shortly before contracting the disease. This article is saying that there is a direct correlation between playing with Barbies and getting an eating disorder. It also states that parents should be careful when choosing what toys their children can play with because they develop a critical eye from an early age. Not only is this article criticising Barbie dolls for leading to eating disorders but it is also blaming parents for choosing the wrong toys for their children (Mirror Mirror, 2016). An article written for the American Psychiatric Association (2016) claims that American children aged three to ten years old own an average of eight Barbies. Whereas, the Mirror Mirror article claims that the same aged kids have an average of ten. Therefore, this suggests that this article may be exaggerating the numbers to potentially try and scare parents into changing their habits if the numbers seemed more extreme. A journal published in 2006 backs up these points by saying that it is specifically the Barbie doll that causes body image issues compared to other dolls. However, it claims that the higher age group of 7 ½ to 8 ½ were not affected by Barbies but were instead affected by the more accurately shaped Emme doll as they perceived this one to be overweight. This also backs up the above articles as it says that environmental stimuli can have an effect very early on in life because they begin to internalise the Barbie image.

The majority of articles discuss how women are affected by media however, men are affected too. An article from The Sun (2017) focuses on how men are affected. It claims that ‘male athletes are 16 times more likely to get an eating disorder compared to normal blokes’ but it fails to state where it has received its facts from. Throughout the article the word ‘expert’ is constantly used to give statistics, however there is no mention of any studies to back up these points and therefore the research may not be accurate. Furthermore, the title suggests that the article would be about social media, however it is only mentioned briefly once at the beginning and so therefore the article is misleading. An article written for the website Adiosbarbie (2015), a website that aims to stretch concepts surrounding body image, talks about how men don’t report eating disorders because they are told to ‘be a man’. This article shows that there are more men than you think struggling with eating disorders but they just don’t speak out. It is also written in a much more informal style and addresses the reader using phrases like ‘we must’ which may suggest that they are trying to connect with the reader about the issue. A further article (casapalmera.com, 2009) compares eating disorders in men and women and it is clear to see that there is a difference in language being used when describing each one. When talking about boys the article uses phrases such as ‘chiselled abs’ or ‘muscular’ which both describe a strong person, compared to words such as ‘waif-thin’ which are used to describe girls. This suggests that whilst both are affected by eating disorders the effects and their views are completely different.

In 2017 a film was realised called ‘To The Bone’ which follows the story of a girl battling anorexia. This film received a lot of backlash as it was said to be glamorising eating disorders. One article by The Sun (2017) used words like ‘shockingly’, ‘worryingly’ and ‘chilling’ to describe the effect it has had on girls struggling with eating disorders. These words are all very strong words and therefore a person reading this article may be persuaded that they shouldn’t let their child watch it as it may lead to them having negative thoughts. They also use the phrase ‘experts slam the show’ without giving the name of the experts they are talking about. By using the word ‘expert’ it makes an article more believable. The Independent (2017) also discussed the film claiming that they have got the portrayal of anorexia wrong. However, they use other articles to back up their points and use less harsh words when negatively discussing the film. As well as this, rather than saying that they are ‘glamorising’ anorexia as The Sun does, they say that they are ‘trivialising’ it suggesting that it’s been over simplified. Furthermore, it doesn’t discuss the film in a negative way because it’s a trigger but it discusses the perception of gender in the film and depicting the main character as a young, white female. They claim that these stereotypes are inaccurate. Therefore, comparing these two articles it is clear to see that The Sun uses much harsher language to instil fear into the reader whilst The Independent uses much softer language and discusses issues surrounding the topic.

Articles always try to place the blame on someone and in this case its celebrities. A Daily Mail article (unknown) says that unrealistic expectations for women lie with celebrities. They use words such as ‘snakehipped’ and ‘reed thin’ to describe models which both suggest that these women were severely underweight. This article also mentions sources such as Queen Mary and Great Ormond Street to show that girls are starving themselves and potentially making themselves infertile. These sources would immediately be trusted by readers whether they may be accurate or not. Therefore, readers may take the article more seriously. This article also compares anorexic teenagers to those liberated from Nazi concentration camps. The fact that they make this comparison is interesting as one is deliberate and the other is by force yet they both result in the same outcome – being severely underweight. By making this comparison it shows how bad the situation really is if girls are deliberately trying to starve themselves to the same extent. However, another article places the blame with social media. The Independent (2014) reported that the problem lies with increased pressure on social media. The article states that it has been given figures ‘exclusively’ on the topic and this may grab people’s attention because it suggests that only the readers will have access to the information.

Figure 3: Screenshot

Some articles suggest that celebrity endorsements encourage people to lose weight as they have a huge social media following and make weight loss seem easy (livestrong.com, 2017). However, half way down this article were adverts for the very thing the article was saying weren’t effective. Figure 3 shows the adverts that were present on the page. s. This isn’t the only time this has been an issue as it was reported in The Sun (2017) about a segment on the show Loose Women. Men were discussing their experiences of negative body image leading to eating disorders and when they went to an advert break the first advert was for diet pills. This goes to show that even when doing research about the negative impacts weight loss it is still possible to be faced with adverts advertising fad diets.

One journal found that roughly 0.5% of 15 to 19-year-old girls have anorexia and it is on the rise. It discusses the ways in which media plays a key role in causing eating disorders. This journal also addresses gender differences when it comes to body image. Girls want to look thin whilst boys want to look lean with lots of muscle. This could be one of the reasons that boys aren’t mentioned as much in the media, because they don’t necessarily look as though they are underweight or have a disease because they may be going about it in a different way (Morris, A and Katzman, D. 2003). One study examined in this article stated that 44% of the girls participating believed they were overweight and 60% of them were in the process of dieting despite the majority of them being a healthy weight. This supports what has been reported in the media because the reason many girls are becoming anorexic is because they believe they are overweight.

However, an article from 2004 reveals that whilst celebrities and playboy models have got thinner over the years the average size of American woman have increase. This shows that there is even more of a contrast between models and reality and therefore the perfect body is becoming harder and harder to achieve.

To conclude, it is clear to see that from comparing academic journals to media sources both seem to be saying the same thing. Media and social media are one of the reasons that the number of people with eating disorders are increasing. They both also suggest that media and social media lead to young people having a more negative perception of themselves which can then manifest into a disease. On the whole, the media sources have been accurate however they sometimes exaggerate the facts as well as only choosing to use certain aspects of studies to fit the story.

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