It is a sad reality that teenagers today are dissatisfied with their body image. Generally, this is regarded as the norm and therefore nothing to worry about - but we should worry, because our children are feeling inadequate and uncomfortable in their own skin. I was recently involved in a research project commissioned by the National Citizen Service (NCS) and conducted by ICM which found 55% of teens feel insecure about their appearance, nearly half of girls (47%) have tried to lose weight by the age of 17 and a third (34%) of boys feel pressured to be muscly.
I'm often asked whether this is a new phenomenon. Whilst young people feeling unhappy with the way they look is not new, the prevalence of the problem is. So what is to blame?
Social media is a huge influence on young people, with Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook in the palm of their hands. While it can be a great way to connect and encourage creativity, there are some considerations. 40% of teens surveyed in the NCS research revealed their appearance was influenced by what they saw on social media compared to just 24% who stated they were influenced by celebrities. 58% of teens admitted to experiencing feelings of jealousy, negativity or insecurity as a result of social media, with just under a quarter (24%) feeling negative about themselves because they don't look like their friends' social media images. This isn't surprising when you consider that, over the course of just one day, they are bombarded with hundreds of instant images of beautiful people; 'perfect' bodies and idyllic lives. Twenty years ago, teenage body image was affected by pictures of celebrities in magazines - but exposure was limited by publication cycle. Now the images are constant, and not limited to the A-list. Teens see perfect photos of friends and peers, creating the myth that everyone else's looks perfect, and if they don't, they're inferior. Our teens don't realise that the images posted will frequently be airbrushed, and the hundredth selfie taken from the most flattering angle.
Adolescence is a time of vulnerability - socially, emotionally and physiologically. The brain re-wires, and whilst the pathways are changing, teenagers process the world around them with the wrong parts - it's like a temporary kitchen being installed in the living room whilst the real one is being redone. On top of this, hormones are flooding in and wreaking havoc. This is why young people are prone to increased risk taking, anxiety and depression. Add the constant pressure of social media and it's no surprise that teenagers are struggling with their emotional wellbeing.
Having understood the influences on young people, the question is: how best can we help them?
It's our responsibility as parents to help them to balance their online life with 'real world' experiences: see their friends in person, find hobbies, take appropriate risks and build their self-esteem on more than just their shape and looks. The younger we get our children to recognise all their extensive and varied attributes, the more solid a foundation they will have to build their self-esteem and sense of self-worth. If they have hobbies, they will spend less time alone on their phones and more time focused on doing things they enjoy. They will value themselves on a wider range of attributes and qualities than just their bodies. This is why NCS is so valuable. It gets young people out of the house and achieving things they never thought they were capable of. They mix with other teens of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and abilities. They have fun, conquer fears and are out being physically active in the real world.
There is no way to stop young people using social media, nor should we. However, one way we have to mitigate the impact on their self-esteem is to educate our children before they start to have regular access to these sites, so that they engage in them with a healthy dose of realism and, ideally, scepticism. We need to help them change the focus from how their body looks to how healthy it is. A healthy body eats well, sleeps well, does some exercise and rests well.
It is vital that we keep the conversation around body image open. Young people rarely want to talk about what is upsetting them when they are in the midst of it - they often return to it at a later date when they feel less vulnerable and more comfortable. Your child needs to know that they are not alone and they can talk to their peers, teachers and family at any time, and they will be taken seriously without being judged or mocked. Focus on what makes your child who they are rather than how they look - and make sure they know too.
Most importantly, if you are worried about your child, seek help early, before difficulties become entrenched. Early intervention is key. Don't wait. It is much better to seek professional advice and to come away reassured, or to attend a handful of sessions early on, rather than to worry about bothering the doctor and then finding that you are facing a much more serious problem. The old adage that prevention is better than cure applies in mental health almost more than in medicine. We cannot underestimate the importance of intervening early to help our teens.
For more information on NCS, go to www.ncsyes.co.uk.