Last week, the Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry into the impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health. In November 2017, the British Youth Council’s Youth Select Committee also took a stand by launching their report, ‘A Body Confident Future’. Among other things, our inquiry investigated how social media can create and exacerbate a poor body image and has 22 urgent recommendations for Government. I was delighted to see that the Science and Technology Committee mentioned our report, reaffirming to the Youth Select Committee the vital importance of our work. Both of these reports recognise the huge role that social media can have on children as young as eight years old, and how a lack of understanding and education can exert an adverse effect that may last a lifetime.
Across the UK, young people are being overwhelmed by the constant pressures of perfection. Whether that be in education, socially, or with regards to their body, the young people of today are under more pressure than ever. But, what is a ‘perfect body’? Is it the posing glamour models on our screens, is it the celebrities on the ubiquitous perfume and fashion advertising campaigns, or can your average Peter or Jane possess the ‘perfect body’? Exposure to these kinds of images, particularly on social media, has been proven to have serious and long-lasting consequences for today’s youth, and unless we do something about it, the problem is only going to get worse. This is why both the Youth Select Committee and the Science and Technology Committee are taking steps to investigate and combat these issues before another generation slips by.
With the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram come new challenges that young people aren’t always sufficiently equipped to overcome. The Science and Technology Committee highlights that 95% of UK 15 year olds use social media before or after school, and half of 9–16 year olds used smart-phones on a daily basis. Increasingly, children and young people seek social validation from ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ on pictures of themselves. This trend can irreversibly damage a child’s self-esteem and body confidence as they grow up, and lead to young people adapting their offline behaviour to fit an online image. A lack of regulation has left social media platforms with the autonomy to set their own standards when it comes to the often oversexualised and psychologically pervasive content available for hours on end to even the youngest of users. However, claiming that social media is the bane of all evil is far too simplistic an attitude to take when it comes to forming a narrative about body confidence. Social media may be part of the problem, but as so often is the case, it needs to be an integral part of the solution. The Science and Technology Committee has recognised this, drawing specific attention in its Terms of Reference to the benefits that social media can bring in supporting those suffering from mental ill-health. It is for these reasons that the Youth Select Committee report includes recommendations that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, working with the Government Equalities Office, engages with social media companies to impose industry-wide minimum provisions for the regulation and removal of content from their platforms.
Body image isn’t just about the way we look, it is also about the way we perceive our place in society. It isn’t just about the size of one’s lips or muscles, nor is it solely restricted to one’s sexual attractiveness. Body image can also encompass how we view our gender, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our disabilities and our socio-economic background. The models on our screens, whether we like it or not, are highlighted as having the ideal body in our culture, and if they are continuing to reinforce a body image that is not only unrealistic and homogeneous but is frankly unhealthy, then we must intervene to disrupt this misrepresentation of society. We need greater diversity in the advertising campaigns which bombard our young people on social media every day, whether it is through including models with a disability, of different ethnicities or models who don’t align with what popular culture tells us is the ‘right’ way to look. Without this intervention, we could leave a generation of young people humiliated by their own bodies.
But real, meaningful change cannot be accomplished through simply changing a few models in advertising campaigns, understanding social media better and taking on the impossible task of ensuring no child below the age of thirteen can ever access social media platforms. We don’t expect our young people to know that ‘the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell’, so why is it assumed that they will automatically realise that appearance bears no relevance on our future or our hopes and dreams? If we are to tackle body image problems correctly, education must play a vital part in doing so. We need an awareness of body image issues, as well as the digital and online literacy, must present in every child’s education. The Science and Technology Committee Terms of Reference asks how greater awareness could be raised by key groups such as schools and the Government of the risks that technology and social media pose to young people. The Government’s pending decision to make PSHE (Personal, Social, Health, and Economic education) and RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) compulsory is welcome and would be a step in the right direction towards improving student understanding of body confidence and dealing with the challenges that a 21st Century online life can bring. However, tackling this problem cannot be left to the already over-saturated PSHE and RSE curricula alone. The Government must demonstrate that they are taking the issue of body image and digital literacy seriously by providing extra funding for schools to take a more integrated and wider approach to solving these issues. Furthermore, this cannot be simply a re-allocation of existing funds, as the well-being of our young people should be of paramount importance.
Throughout the sitting of the Youth Select Committee over the past year, we have found that the issue of body image and its causes is one that is scarcely tackled across Whitehall. We expect this to change. By giving body image issues more prominence through ring-fencing funding and providing resources and support for specific groups we feel the Government can create real change for my generation and the young people of tomorrow. Unfortunately, the consequences of poor body confidence can manifest themselves in serious health problems, and a proactive and comprehensive approach from the Health Service is necessary for helping to prevent this. Improvements to government-funded CAHMS resources and support as well as better channels of communication to reach parents and pupils are central to the recommendations of the Youth Select Committee and the importance of parents in protecting our young people is recognized and reinforced by the Science and Technology Committees’ Terms of Reference.
The Youth Select Committee submitted our report in November and we are currently awaiting a response from the Government. This is the time for Whitehall to show that they are committed to supporting and fighting for the well-being of every young person in this country. The report by the Science and Technology Committee will take another step to tackling the new world of social media driven lives and everyone at the Youth Select Committee will supporting it every step of the way.
Changing the way young people see their own physical appearance is no mean feat, and it will take an entire society to change in order to create a generation that doesn’t value themselves on how they look in the mirror. The report by the Youth Select Committee is one small part of the battle to ensure that poor body confidence is recognised as a danger far greater than a trivial preoccupation of the superficial and the vain. As the lives we lead change, so too must the way in which we mitigate against the negative consequences of these new obstacles. Social media is a tool that has the potential to improve our lives, bring people together and create real change. But this is only possible if we can recognise and protect our young people from the very real dangers that social media can pose. The government must take the lead by ensuring that the all-encompassing potential of our youngest generation isn’t destroyed by shame and fear.
— British Youth Council (@bycLIVE) 1 February 2018