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For the generation growing up in the age of social media, the pressure to look, feel, and live a certain way can be disabling. As social networks bombard young people with unrealistic expectations of beauty, health and happiness, the underdogs are looking to Parliament for action. We have Noah Hoffman
Young people today face seemingly life-changing stresses. Whether it’s getting a place at university, finding a job or being able to pay rent, the modern world can sometimes feel like an endless obstacle course, with new challenges emerging and old ones being overcome.
No generation has this easy, and each age is burdened with its own unique stresses. But the people who found their feet in the third decade of the twenty-first millennium are facing a new kind of difficulty, which generations before it may struggle to understand. The pressure is from social media, and in particular the way it constantly imposes unrealistic and sometimes dangerous expectations for beauty, health, and happiness.
Social networks have done a great deal of good for society, but as Parliament is aware, the scale of the challenges that come with it is huge and complex. The Online Safety Act aims to address some of the most troubling aspects of the internet, including eliminating online abuse and protecting children from harmful content. However, the issue of apps that surreptitiously distort young people’s view of their bodies, and the attendant impact on their self-esteem, has received less political attention. It’s a problem that can contribute to physical and mental health problems that range from chronic low self-esteem to serious cases of an eating disorder.
Dr Luke Evans, the Conservative MP for Bosworth, is among a growing number of parliamentarians concerned about the rising level of body image problems facing young people. Prior to his election, Evans worked as a general practitioner, with increasing numbers of patients coming to him dissatisfied with their appearance.
“When I became a doctor, I started getting more and more young people to say, ‘I have a real problem, I want to slim down for this or I want to slim down for this,'” Evans says.
When I became a doctor, I started getting more young people to say, “I have a real problem, I want to slim for this or I want to lose for that.”
Throughout history, society has been transformed by differences in the ideal body. Evans, who “grew up in the age of Baywatch,“He remembers how watching huge lifeguards running along the beach led him to think of ways to get similar fitness. But unlike decades past, today’s youth are constantly exposed to so-called perfect bodies because they are contained within the apps on their phones.
Hope Virgo, a prominent mental health activist who has spoken openly about her battle with eating disorders, is also concerned about the way social media can distort young people’s perception of body image and health.
“Over the past two years, we’ve seen a lot more health and wellness influencers who have these modern, perfect bodies that aren’t normal,” says Virgo.
“A lot of the people we look at online are probably not actually healthy. But because they’re skinny, or in ‘good’ shape, we automatically assume they are.”
Online “influencers” – people who follow a large number of social media – regularly fill their profiles with pictures of skinny bodies in posh locations. The images, which are often heavily edited to remove perceived impurities, are pushed into the view of vulnerable youth by social media algorithms. Consequently, young people find themselves bombarded with distorted images of “normal” bodies and happy lives. Indirectly, they are presented with the idea that in order to be loved, receive compliments, or be followed online, they must look a certain way and have access to certain physical goods.
Influencers sometimes accompany photos with tips on how to achieve a body like theirs. Some have recommended their followers try “light tea” – laxatives of questionable long-term efficacy – as well as unrealistic food and exercise regimens for young people who already exercise at school, university or the workplace.
“I know from the work I do in schools with young children, a lot of them have been very influenced by social media, especially about people’s body size,” says Virgo.
“It’s tough because we know that bad body image doesn’t necessarily cause an eating disorder. But I feel with this generation of people with eating disorders, a lot of which is very connected to modern society and the pressures around image.”
Virgo, who is in the late stages of recovering from years of an eating disorder, says that on bad days she is “very careful not to scroll on [Instagram] Explore the bar, not looking and finding myself in a rabbit hole of fitness influences.”
And these concerns aren’t just for individuals – companies are starting to sound the alarm, too.
Standing against “the reality of how they affect people’s mental health,” beauty brand Lush recently announced plans to shut down its Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat accounts.
Jack Constantine, chief digital officer of the cosmetics company, told Today The software the tech giants needed to correct their “desire for an algorithm to be able to consistently create content regardless of whether it is useful to users or not.”
“Suppose you are a person with anorexia – [they shouldn’t] “It feeds you more content which will feed that in a negative way,” Constantine said.
A report commissioned by the Commission on Women and Equality last year found that more than 60 percent of adults feel negative or extremely negative about their bodies most of the time. While poor body image affects all ages and genders, the problem is most acute among young adults, with 66 percent of children feeling negative about their appearance most of the time.
So, what, if anything, can Parliament do to help in this situation? Evans thinks the best place to start is to task social media users with tagging photos of digitally altered bodies.
“What I mean by that is to make your biceps bigger, or make your waist smaller, because my biggest concern is no matter what you eat, or how you train, you can never achieve that look,” says Evans.
“This is the biggest concern. It creates this distorted sense of reality that you can never achieve.”
It creates this distorted sense of reality that you can never achieve
Hannah Williams, a 23-year-old social media journalist who previously struggled with poor body image and eating disorder, believes labeling would be a “stepping stone in the right direction.”
“It will definitely have a positive effect,” she says. “If you see a poster that says, ‘Oh, they don’t actually look like that,’ that would be a step towards thinking, ‘It’s good that they don’t look like that either.'”
Some on the “right side” of Evans’ party have expressed concerns that the forced labeling process is another example of the “Conservative government’s desire to ban more things”.
But the MP is convinced that his policy includes conservative principles.
“If you believe in free markets, and that the perfect market needs complete information, then this is simply it,” says Evans.
The representative uses the example of a hotel reservation. Holiday-goers don’t want their travel agent or booking site to give them digitally altered photos of potential places to stay – “that’s false advertising.”
“I use this argument for people who are worried this is a big government sticking their noses in. It’s not at all like that. It’s simply saying there’s a problem here.”
“There are hundreds of images that you scroll through in a few minutes. So it creates the perception wherever you look that there are a lot of great-looking people everywhere that you have to try and aspire to. In fact, the world is not like that.”
The second step that Evans wants Parliament to take is to include in the Online Security Act a requirement for social media companies to recognize body image as a potential area of harm to users, which means Ofcom will require them to take steps to limit unhealthy content.
The MP believes that doing so would put additional duties of care on social media.
“Social media companies can make a huge difference by having that responsibility and the motivation to follow them,” says Evans.
It can be difficult to make space for issues around body image and irregular eating on the political agenda, particularly as Parliament is preoccupied with matters relating to Brexit, social care, Covid and immigration.
However, Virgo, Williams, and Evans are sure that the problem requires immediate attention.
“I don’t think it’s seen as an urgent issue,” says Virgo. “This is a real problem that affects millions of people and unless it is dealt with with that kind of urgency, it will continue to get worse.”
Last month, Frances Hogan, a former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower, told the Commission on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that her former employer’s algorithms “prioritize extremist content.”
For young people who struggle with body image, this can include constantly directing them toward influencers who promote diet products. It can also take shape into a less sinister but equally problematic form of being bombarded by narratives that show so-called beautiful men and women – people who look nothing like them but create a distorted perception that physical “perfection” is what young people should aspire to.
“Surely this should prompt Parliament to at least investigate and find out what’s going on,” Williams said.
“It has become such a pervasive problem that more impactful policies must be introduced.”
Evans is confident that MPs are opening their eyes to the problem – even older MPs and peers who may struggle to make sense of the very recent phenomenon of influencers and “skinny tea.”
After launching his campaign to #RecogniseBodyImage, he noticed that colleagues and the public are expressing great interest in the issue.
“When we first shared the campaign on Facebook, half a million people naturally viewed it, which is unbelievable. It shows the appetite is there.
“People come to you and talk to you saying, ‘I want to share this message,’ and ‘Why can’t we do more about it?’ ”
“Pushing on the agenda is the hard part.”
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