17/10/2014 07:59 BST | Updated 16/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Should Body Confidence Be Taught In Schools?

Body image is not a trivial issue. Over a decade of scientific and consumer research in the UK and overseas shows that it has significant impacts on health, education and relationships. A recent study from Girl Guiding UK and Dove revealed that one in five primary school girls has been on a diet, and 47% of 11-14 year old girls are opting out of everyday activities such as swimming and speaking up in class because they don't like how they look. Boys are not immune either; studies have found that the majority of teenage girls and boys are unhappy with the way they look.

The evidence is clear. Low body confidence is a significant public health and social issue requiring our attention. The classroom provides an excellent opportunity to promote healthy body image. It's where we can reach most teenagers and enlist the help of their teachers, who are well placed to support them when armed with the right body confidence tools and training. There is also strong demand from schools for body confidence education. A survey at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England found that 1 in 2 British secondary school students say they want to learn more about body confidence at school.

Despite the urgency with which we must approach this problem, we need to resist the allure of quick-fix responses to what is a serious and complex issue. We need to move beyond simple awareness raising and twee body confidence slogans. If we want to make a meaningful impact, we need to ensure that body confidence lessons delivered in schools have been tested and demonstrate measurable improvements in young people's body image in both the short and long term. We also need to make sure that teachers have easy access to the best materials and training, so that they can feel confident to deliver body confidence education.

If we've learnt anything from other public health initiatives it's that despite good intentions, rushing to deploy untested programs and policies can waste time, effort and millions of pounds. A great example of this is the 'DARE' drug abuse prevention program, which was delivered untested to schools across the USA, and later found to be ineffective. This missed opportunity is estimated to have cost over $1 billion in lost time and resources. Ultimately, rolling out programs before we are confident that they work delays us from finding real and sustainable solutions.

While well intentioned, many of the existing school body image programs are ineffective. A recent systematic review of studies evaluating classroom body image programs for secondary schools published in the international scientific journal Body Image revealed that only two out of the 16 programs reviewed significantly improved body confidence in the long term. Fortunately, this review also captured the key ingredients of effective programs. This included multi-session programs (between 3-8 lessons) that targeted students during early adolescence and focused on media literacy, self-esteem and the influence of friends.

We can avoid past mistakes and make a meaningful and positive difference right now, but only if we use the right tools. If schools are serious about improving students' body confidence, there are proven programs readily available. For example, the Dove Self Esteem Project recently launched a new introductory body confidence lesson freely available for schools to download. This workshop was developed on the basis of rigorous scientific research, along with the input of students, teachers and body image experts, including my colleagues and me at the Centre for Appearance Research and La Trobe University. It provides an example of a brief program that is teacher friendly, liked by students, and uses techniques shown to be among the most effective in improving students' body image in the classroom. A five-session workshop series for schools looking to make even greater and longer lasting improvements will follow in 2015. Other programs with robust track records for improving body image in the classroom include Media Smart Australia and Happy Being Me.

Of course, it is also critical that media, businesses, families and governments join schools in taking action on this issue. All young people deserve to grow up in an environment that supports them to feel comfortable and confident in their bodies. Schools are a place in which the right body image programs have shown that they can make a significant difference. Why shouldn't we?

Dr Phillippa Diedrichs is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Appearance Research University of the West of England, a member of the Dove Self Esteem Project Global Advisory Board, and a supporter and advisor to the national Be Real campaign for body confidence in the UK.