When we have a question about health and fitness (or pretty much anything else, for that matter), we usually turn to the internet. Tweens and teens who may be self-conscious about their bodies are doing it, too, looking for answers about how to “get skinny” to keep up with the men or women they see in magazine ads, or to get as muscular as their favorite actors or athletes. As this study explains.
“Salient influences on body image include the media , which can target adolescents, and peers who help shape beliefs about the perceived body ideal. The concepts of fat talk and weight-related bullying during adolescence greatly contribute to an overemphasis on body weight and appearance as well as the development of negative body perceptions and dissatisfaction surrounding specific body parts.”
With those insecurities in mind, teenagers go online for tips and tricks.
“What I Ate Today” Vlogs and Other Fitspo
There is no shortage of fitness-related social media pages and profiles. “Fitspo” is short for “fitspiration,” which comes from “fitness inspirations.” Fitspo bloggers and social media celebrities offer workout advice and post selfies that highlight their narrow waists and muscle definition. Teens are inundated with information about how to get fit.
One of many ways this information is shared is via the “What I Ate Today” video blog (vlog), which is exactly what it sounds like. People (mostly girls and women, as you’ll see after a quick search for the term on YouTube) share videos talking about what they ate that day. There’s often chatting, meal preparation, and maybe some recipes.
The Good News
Some of the information is solid: it’s shared by experts and backed by science. (Thank goodness, or we’d all be in trouble!) Many of the fitspo bloggers and influencers are good role models: they encourage moderation, good exercise technique, rest days, and balanced meals. Some of them even post side-by-side photos showing how easy it is to appear thin and fit simply by changing your outfit, your pose, the lighting, and the angle of the camera, warning their followers not to trust every photo that they see and promoting a healthy body image.
When your teens follow these responsible influencers, they learn valuable tips about how to live a healthy lifestyle.
The Bad News
The internet is full of misinformation, and it’s getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between truth and fiction. Furthermore, the health and fitness world has its own trends, some of which work for certain people and not for others. This is why not all health and fitness vloggers and bloggers are created equal.
Education: Some fitness bloggers are certified professionals who have worked as fitness instructors and personal trainers for years. Nutritionists and other experts also share their knowledge on their own websites. However, many more of those bloggers are not much different than your own teenager. They simply found a platform to talk about what they do, whether extreme diets, they might not realize the potential damage they’re doing to their own bodies until later in life.
Influence and Intention: The bloggers with the most followers are offered all sorts of promotional deals as many companies take advantage of the opportunity to get their products in front of those followers. Even though it’s required for an influencer to reveal any such affiliation, those connections might go unnoticed by your teen. Furthermore, the blogger might be saying that she always uses a certain supplement, when in reality she was paid or otherwise rewarded for promoting the product and doesn’t even use it at all.
The Risks for Teens
Constant exposure to images of an “ideal” body type can leave your teen feeling inferior. Social media has already been shown to contribute to low self-esteem; it can also contribute to eating disorders.
According to Park Nicollet Melrose Center, 80 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of getting fat, and more than half of teenage girls use unhealthy ways to manage their weight. A 2011 study showed that “The more time adolescent girls spend in front of Facebook, the more their chances of developing a negative body image and various eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and exaggerated dieting.”
Some “What I Ate Today” vlogs could feature low caloric intakes or imbalanced diets. Others might insist upon a certain type of diet (paleo, keto, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, etc) that your teen might start to follow without considering the pros and cons. Even if the diet is healthy, it could contribute to obsessive behavior in some teens with meal preparation and planning or excessive restrictions on what he or she is willing to eat.
What Can Parents Do?
Healthy habits and a healthy body image start early in life. Here’s how you can help get your child started on the right foot:
Set a Good Example: Practice healthy, balanced exercise and eating habits. (A healthy diet will also help your child with school and energy levels.) Talk positively about your own body, focusing on what it can do rather than what it looks like. Compliment your child the same way: “You’re so strong!” or “You’re great at basketball!” rather than “You’re so thin and pretty!”
Encourage Physical Activity: Sports and dance classes are great, but so is a family walk after dinner or a hike on the weekend.
Keep an Eye on Your Teen’s Internet Activity: Keeping tabs should always be a part of your agreement with your child about going online or using a mobile device. Be aware of what sites your children are using, and stay on top of the news about trends and apps. This is easier when you use a trustworthy parental control that allows you block dangerous categories and apps.
Talk About What You See Online: Encourage your teen to talk to you if they see something online that they are uncomfortable with or if they have questions about. Comment on the media you consume together: for example, if you see a billboard, you can mention (without degrading the subject of the photo) how advertisers regularly edit the images to make them look a certain way, and that people sometimes do that with their own photos, too. Ask your teen if they have noticed that in their social media newsfeed.
As the parent, you have influence over your child’s health and fitness habits simply by setting a positive example. Of course, social media influence will sneak in, so be ready to notice any changes in your child’s eating or exercise habits.