young person taking a mirror selfieToday’s children and teens are surrounded by media images and messages portraying idealized body types, subsequently, it is important to understand the relationship between children’s media use and how they feel about their looks. Many magazines, websites, movies, music videos, TV shows and other media portray ideal male and female bodies that are often cosmetically altered and/or unattainable for the majority of the population. Research shows that media exposure can affect how children perceive their bodies and that these perceptions can affect their physical, emotional, and mental health.

How Can Media Affect a Child’s Body Image?

There is a general consensus that exposure to media that showcases idealized body types can affect how children and teens view their own bodies. Research indicates that when a young person does not feel like his or her body meets society’s image of perfection, he or she can have a difficult time developing a strong self-esteem. The link between media use and a child’s body image is largely due to the following:

  • The internet offers young people a chance to find information, both true and false, about how to improve their bodies. One recent development is the phenomenon of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites and “thinspiration” social media accounts, which encourage young people to adopt unhealthy behaviors to lower their weight or increase their muscularity.
  • “Teen” magazines such as Teen Vogue, and Seventeen often contain articles about how to look “slim” and “sexy” Research has found that heavy readers of these magazines are twice as likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors.
  • Advertising is perhaps the most powerful medium for presenting unrealistic body types. Advertisers attract attention for their products by showcasing them with thin women and muscular men. With advanced techniques for retouching photographs, models’ bodies are often “improved” by computers, giving viewers an unrealistic sense of what bodies look like naturally.

What YOU Can Do

Although exposure to photoshopped, airbrushed, cosmetically altered and idealized models and illustrations can be found in many forms of popular media, limiting how much your children are exposed to can help ensure that they are not learning incorrect and/or misleading information about what healthy bodies look like from the movies, video games, ads, magazines and TV shows they interact with. Here are several suggestions to help you limit and guide your child’s exposure to unhealthy/unrealistic body images in media:

Do Your Homework

  • It is hard to limit your child’s exposure to unrealistic and unhealthy body images as they are pervasive in today’s culture. What you can do is limit their exposure by choosing channels or services that do not include commercials or record shows ahead of time and fast forward through the commercials when your child is watching. Additionally, choose magazine subscriptions that showcase healthy, realistic kids and teens and the activities that they love to do. Avoid magazines that emphasize physical beauty.
  • Consuming media with your child can also help reduce the negative effects of unhealthy/unrealistic body image exposure, as you can explain the realities surrounding airbrushing, enhanced body parts, unhealthily skinny and/or overly-muscled models.

Practice Media Literacy

In today’s often media saturated environment, teaching children to think critically about media is important. Critical thinking allows children to question the motivations behind different media depictions of attractiveness and how accurate they are. Children can also learn how to make their own healthy body image messages in response to the manipulative unrealistic/unhealthy messages they are exposed to. By teaching kids that the models and illustrations they see in media are often unattainable or unhealthy, children will be less likely to accept these images as the standard for how they should look.

Be a Media Role Model

Be aware of what you are watching, reading and/or playing when your child is present. Know that even if the content seems to be appropriate, overexposure to unhealthy/unrealistic body images can affect how children and teens act. Monitor your child’s diet and know the signs and symptoms associated with eating disorders. In addition, try to eat healthfully and keep physically active in the same ways you would like your kids to follow.

Remove Screens from Children’s Bedrooms

Keep TVs, computers and video game systems out of children’s bedrooms, and make sure that all other internet connected devices such as tablets and smartphones are left in a common room or your bedroom to charge overnight. By keeping these electronics in a common area, parents can monitor their use much more easily and be aware of how much media their children are using and if the content is developmentally appropriate.



Do you know a teen who wants to learn more about body image?

Visit the Center for Young Women’s Health at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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