How Exposure to the Media Can Harm Your Teen's Body Image

Female students looking at smartphones
Peter Muller / Getty Images

The average teen spends about nine hours per day using media for their enjoyment, according to a report by Common Sense Media. On the other hand, those same teens spend less than an average of 10 minutes a day talking to their parents.

It’s likely that during those nine hours of media consumption your teen is exposed to thousands of overt and subtle messages about the "ideal" body. These often unrealistic and unattainable portrayals of beauty can affect your teen’s body image and lead them to have negative feelings about how they look and their value as a person.

Messages Teens Receive

Movies, commercials, magazines, social media accounts, and websites often portray stereotypically beautiful, thin people as ideal. Underweight and/or slim but curvy models and Photoshopped images of "perfection" are everywhere. Diet products and beauty items send the message that being thinner and more attractive (as in fitting the traditional Western beauty standards) is the key to happiness and success.

The effect can be seen in children at a young age. Research shows children as young as 3 prefer game pieces that depict thin people over those representing heavier ones. By age 10, 80% of American girls have been on a diet.

Social Media and Perfection

It’s not just traditional media that places teens under pressure to be thin and beautiful. Social media may have an even more powerful effect on your teen’s body image.

Immediate, peer-to-peer feedback can be addictive for those whose self-esteem depends on social media affirmations.

Many teens crave validation from their peers and social media is a quick way for them to gain feedback. Whether a teen posts a selfie on Instagram or they view videos of others boasting about their "thigh gap" on TikTok, social influences can be very powerful.

Some teens spend hours trying to capture a selfie at just the right angle. Others gauge their appearance based on how many likes their latest Instagram photo receives. Unfortunately, many teens also receive harsh criticism and rude comments on social media. Cyberbullying can be quite damaging to a teen’s body image.

Consequences of Poor Body Image

The pressure to be thin can have serious consequences. Research has linked the exposure of images of underweight air-brushed female bodies to unhealthy eating habits and decreased self-esteem.

Poor body image can lead to even more serious consequences. While some teens develop eating disorders, others experience depression. One study found that girls who were unhappy with their appearance were at a significantly higher risk for suicide.

It’s not just girls who are subjected to unrealistic media portrayals of beauty. Superheroes and action figures depict unrealistic body types and start sending boys harmful messages about their bodies at a young age, too. Teen boys may strive for the perfect body through dieting or compulsive exercise. They may also develop eating disorders or mental health problems stemming from poor body image.

How to Limit Media’s Harmful Effects

While you can't prevent your teen from being bombarded with harmful media images, you can aim to limit their exposure and have a fruitful dialog about these images. Ever-present smartphones and increased use of other electronic devices mean your teen will see idealized versions of beauty everywhere. But you can teach your teen to be media literate.

  • Hold conversations about unhealthy body images. Discuss body acceptance and that every body is different and beautiful. Explain that the most important things about a body are what it can do and how healthy it is, not how it looks—and that it can be very unrealistic and unhealthy to strive for a so-called "perfect body." Talk about the drastic, unsafe measures some people take to obtain these body types.
  • Listen to your teen. Ask them how they feel when they see these images in the media. Ask them how they feel about their own body. Help them process their feelings. Seek help from a healthcare provider or therapist if they have body image issues that are bothering them or negatively impacting their self-image.
  • Talk about marketing efforts. Discuss the sometimes unscrupulous tactics advertisers use to sell products. Help your teen spot underlying messages about how a product will make them more attractive.
  • Use real examples. Watch TV together and pause shows and commercials to talk about the messages that are being sent. Look at magazines together and discuss the unrealistic images.

Make these topics part of ongoing conversations in your house. Doing so can help your teen develop a healthy body image and reduce the power the media and social media have on them.

A Word From Verywell

You can help to insulate your teen from the media's deluge of negative body image messaging by promoting body acceptance at home. While you can't totally protect your teen from the negative impacts of seeing these images in the media, talking about them and countering them with body positivity can help.

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Common Sense Media. Landmark report: U.S. teens use an average of nine hours of media per day, tweens use six hours.

  2. Hosokawa R, Katsura T. Association between mobile technology use and child adjustment in early elementary school age. PLoS ONE. 2018;13(7). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0199959

  3. de Vries DA, Vossen HGM, van der Kolk-van der Boom P. Social media and body dissatisfaction: Investigating the attenuating role of positive parent-adolescent relationships. J Youth Adolesc. 2019;48(3):527-536. doi:10.1007/s10964-018-0956-9

  4. Harriger, J. A., Calogero, R. M., Witherington, D. C., & Smith, J. E. (2010). Body size stereotyping and internalization of the thin ideal in preschool girls. Sex Roles, 63, 609–620. doi:10.1007/s11199-010- 9868-1

  5. Pew Research Center. A majority of teens have experienced some form of cyberbullying.

  6. Maccallum F, Widdows H. Altered images: Understanding the influence of unrealistic images and beauty aspirations. Health Care Anal. 2018;26(3):235-245. doi: 10.1007/s10728-016-0327-1

  7. Dave D, Rashad I. Overweight status, self-perception, and suicidal behaviors among adolescents. Soc Sci Med. 2009;68(9):1685-91. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2009.02.015

  8. The Conversation. Muscle dysmorphia: Why are so many young men suffering this serious health condition?.

  9. Common Sense Media. What is the impact of advertising on kids?.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.