The amount of time children spend looking at screens has dramatically increased in the last two decades, raising a number of concerns. For example, screen time may increase sedentary behaviour, and it may affect the quality of sleep. Moreover, it is increasingly evident that the images children are exposed to can affect their own body image as well as how they view others.

It’s become apparent that social media can fuel body image concerns among adolescents and adults, but less attention has been paid to the potentially negative effects of media consumption on how younger children view their bodies. It is clear that the images children consume on the screen and elsewhere can impact how they see the world.

“The images children are exposed to can affect their own body image as well as how they view others.”

This can be problematic when children are confronted with society’s idea of an ideal body. Children as young as three can already hold such body image ideals. In one study, three- to five-year-olds were asked to pick the person they most wanted to play with from a range of images of children with thinner and larger bodies. The children already understood that having a larger than average body was less desirable, so they were more likely to choose the thinner children as potential playmates. Their sense of which body types are more desirable was likely influenced by various aspects of their environments, including their parents and wider social connections.

Being in a smaller body is perceived as more positive from a social perspective, says Rachel Rodgers, a psychologist from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Indeed, even some five-year-olds have concerns about their diets that relate to body size. As one study noted, media exposure and negative comments about appearance “were the strongest predictors of dietary restraint”. When it comes to body image, boys and girls tend to have different worries: Boys are more concerned with muscularity and girls with thinness, since society sends the message that men should be muscular and women should be thin.

“Boys are more concerned with muscularity and girls with thinness, since society sends the message that men should be muscular and women should be thin.”

In one 2017 study, Rodgers and her colleagues looked at the effects of media exposure on body image in children as young as three. They observed that those who had been exposed to more media by age three had a more positive view of thinness at ages four and five. Rodgers explains that screen time encourages children to internalise the notion that thinness is the ideal. This echoes a similar study from 2007 showing that seven- to nine-year-olds who watched more TV had a higher level of “thin ideal internalisation” as well as more restrained eating.

This happens, Rodgers explains, because TV exposes us to unrealistic images and sets up positive expectations around specific body types. “The person who looks a certain way is always achieving success, popularity, and all the valued things in life,” says Rodgers. At the same time, these ideals are marketed with specific products, sending the message that a successful lifestyle can be achieved if you spend the time and money needed to look that way.

The effect this can have on children can range from poor mental health related to body image to eating disorders. Body dissatisfaction is also linked to suicidal ideation. This is why it’s so important to monitor the impact of early exposure to media.  

So how can we encourage children to develop a positive image of their own bodies? Limiting exposure to screens may help. Parents should also be aware of their children’s exposure to unrealistic advertising. Furthermore, the way we talk to children about body image matters, as does the way we talk about our own bodies.

“The way we talk to children about body image matters, as does the way we talk about our own bodies.”

For instance, a mother’s dissatisfaction with her body can influence how her daughter sees her own body. Children are more likely to suffer from body dissatisfaction and eating disorders when their parents regularly discuss appearance and weight. Rodgers also points out the importance of shifting from talking about the body in terms of how it looks (its size, for example) to focusing on what the body is capable of. Rather than commenting on a child’s appearance, you might mention how great it is that their legs have so much energy and allow them to run so fast.

While we can’t completely control the impact of advertising and the passive absorption of media in our daily lives, we can control what children watch, and we can talk to them. It’s important we do so in order to help every child maintain a healthy body image.

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