Yesterday, the Children’s Commissioner published their report, ‘Life in Likes’, on how social media can affect the lives and wellbeing of eight to twelve year olds, an area of research all too often ignored. In November 2017, the British Youth Council Youth Select Committee also took a stand by launching their report, A Body Confident Future, with 22 recommendations for Government. The British Youth Council report investigates how social media can create and exacerbate a poor body image. 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 kind 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.
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 Children’s Commissioner’s report on the effects of social media highlights that up to three quarters of 10-12 year olds may have a social media account, despite most social media platforms having an age limit of thirteen. 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 a far from 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. This is why 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 must implement into every child’s education an awareness of body image issues as well as the acceptance of those who are different from us. The Children’s Commissioner report recommends increasing digital literacy in schools, which would go a long way to equipping young people with the skills necessary to improve their digital resilience. The Government’s decision to make Relationships and Sex Education compulsory is welcome, and extending this to the broader PSHE curriculum would be a step in the right direction towards improving student understanding of body confidence. However, tackling this problem cannot be left to the already over-saturated PSHE and RSE curricula alone. The Children’s Commissioner report promotes the use of peer-to-peer learning, which would undoubtedly provide young people with an accessible means of understanding their online presence. The Government must demonstrate that they are taking the issue of body image seriously by providing extra funding for schools to take a more integrated and wider approach to solving body image problems. 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 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 by the health service is necessary in helping to prevent this. Improvements to government-funded CAMHS resources and support as well as better channels of communication to reach parents and pupils are central in the recommendations of the Youth Select Committee and the importance of parents in protecting our young people is recognised and reinforced by the Children’s Commissioner report recommendations on guidance for parents.
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 in 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. Government must take the lead by ensuring that the all-encompassing potential of our youngest generation isn’t destroyed by shame and fear.