A parents’ guide to navigating toxic social media influence

toxic social media culture
With the internet now firmly part of daily life, social media has never been more intertwined with our real lives. This rings truest for the current generation of children and adolescents more than anyone else.

WORDS: Dr. Hannah Jarman

Growing up surrounded by technology, they know the digital world just as well as they know the real world. And while this allows them to build friendships and find communities across the globe, social media can also be toxic to their wellbeing.

New research from Dove’s Self Esteem Project has found more than half of young girls in Australia aged between 10-17 are on social media every day.

70% of those surveyed also follow or watch influencers on social media, with a focus on beauty, fashion and celebrities as popular interest topics.

Beauty advice fills their feed, and some of this can be especially toxic. Shockingly, the study also revealed that 52% of young girls constantly check how they look in photos and wish they looked better, while 48% said they often wish they looked like someone else. Furthermore, 54% said toxic and potentially harmful beauty advice from social media influencers, such as filing down teeth for the perfect smile or using waist trainers to slim down, has caused low self esteem.

What is toxic beauty advice and how do we spot it?

Toxic beauty advice normalises unrealistic beauty standards and promotes potentially harmful beauty practices. Self worth is also typically linked to physical ‘perfection’ – something that is infinitely unattainable.

This can include things like:

#Thinspiration

Also known as #Thinspo, #Thinspiration often shows images of extremely thin bodies, quotes discouraging eating, and advice on maintaining and concealing disordered eating behaviours. While many social media platforms have attempted to restrict access to this type of advice by removing the hashtag #Thinspo from their search functions and banning toxic accounts, young people can still find ways around these restrictions by changing hashtags and usernames.

#Fitspiration

#Fitspiration, also known as #Fitspo, implies that an ‘ideal’ body can be achieved by following an account’s diet and exercise advice, or purchasing products and services they’re advertising. #Fitspo posts promote narrow definitions of beauty and position exercise as a way to achieve these ideals. As of 2023, over 72 million Instagram posts were tagged with #Fitspo.

Idealised beauty content

Social media is often filled with ‘beautiful’ people living their ‘perfect’ lives and research tells us that we frequently compare ourselves to this type of content. Unsurprisingly, these comparisons cause girls to feel worse about themselves in a range of areas, from their appearance to their social life.

According to Dove, 60% of young girls in Australia wished they had information about how to avoid or deal with idealised beauty content. It’s obvious many young girls are eager to detox their feeds. As for the parents? 86% of surveyed mothers in Australia also think social media can negatively impact girls’ body confidence, but only 27% of Australian mothers talk to their daughters about it.

It’s unrealistic to try and remove or filter out toxic beauty advice from social media completely, so education is key. Both kids and parents alike need the tools to spot toxic trends and advice on social media and have conversations around what is and is not good for their wellbeing. So, how can we start the conversation?

Prep

Spend time on popular social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitch.

Get familiar with these platforms, check out the safety functions that enable users to block, report and unfollow accounts. Follow the accounts your child engages with most and discuss what types of posts and videos they like and why.

Chat

The goal is to start conversations that will help kids identify toxic beauty advice and think more critically about their feed and consider ways they can detoxify it.

Remember: It’s about regularly checking in and making social media a safe and positive space together – not controlling your child’s accounts.

Some talking points can include:

  • Comparing yourself to others on social media can be problematic as posts can be filtered or edited and far from real life.
  • When your child is scrolling through their feed, discuss if some of their favourite accounts are a fair comparison to their own life. Highlight the widespread use of digital distortion and filters – not to mention the fact that some accounts hire professionals to create and edit their posts.
  • Ask them to consider if these accounts have the qualifications to be trusted sources on topics like nutrition, exercise and beauty standards.
  • Encourage them to remember that what they see in their feed is somebody’s carefully curated highlight reel – it’s rarely real life.

 

Detox

Now it’s time to walk the walk! Spend 10-minutes scrolling through your feeds together, thinking about how certain posts make you feel. Discuss what accounts make you feel uplifted and inspired and which ones negatively impact your self-esteem or body confidence. Next, show your child how to block or report toxic beauty advice (if they don’t know already).

Make a pact to detoxify your feeds together by unfollowing or hiding the posts that make you both feel self-doubt. If they feel good not seeing these posts for a week, encourage them to unfollow those accounts for good.

Once the negativity is removed from your feed, make sure to follow positive role models that educate, inspire, spark joy and creativity, and make you feel empowered and uplifted!

Repeat this process as many times as you need, as frequently as you need. Don’t be harsh on yourself if you need to continue working on your relationship with your own body and appearance.

And remember, the most important thing is to have open conversations, not just with your children, but with other parents, friends and your wider community to spread awareness of the impact of toxic beauty advice and encourage the next generation to build their confidence.


Hannah Jarman is the Executive Dean Research Fellow within the School of Psychology at Deakin University, specialising in adolescent development, body image and social media.


For more information:

dove.com/au/dove-self-esteem-project.html

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