Does ‘Body Positivity’ Impact Mental Health in Kids?

When kids feel good about themselves, they’re more resilient to negativity. Learn the connection between body positivity and strong mental health, and how to cultivate it at home.

Hop onto Instagram, YouTube or TikTok right now and you will surely see content that refers to body size or shape. And if you’re seeing it, so are your kids. They may flock to social media to connect, but research shows that kids are coming away with negative feelings about their bodies.

It’s a heavy mental load to carry. The UK’s Mental Health Foundation reports that 4 in 10 teens say social media images cause them to worry about body image. Thirty-five percent report worrying about their body image often or every day.

“Research bears this out,” says Jameel Smith, Ph.D., Lead Pediatric Psychologist at Wayne Pediatrics. “Social media does play a role in how young people think about body image.” When her patients make judgments about how they see themselves or how others see them, they admit that the evidence comes from their phones.

With increasing support for “body positivity” in popular culture, rising voices that assure us all bodies are beautiful and acceptable should drown out all that negativity, right? Smith says that anecdotally, the body positivity movement is making its way into social media, mixing in with what kids consume on their smartphones.

Body positivity, according to Psychology Today, is a movement that champions acceptance of all types of bodies. Terms like ‘body neutrality’ and ‘body inclusivity’ are making inroads into conversations, if not meaningfully into the social media our kids consume. But is the wave of positivity strong enough?

Adult content is now highly accessible to young minds

One alarming trend is the conclusions young people are drawing about their bodies from pornography they see online. In its many forms, pornography has been available forever, but it hasn’t always been as accessible as it is today.

“It’s more intense and more graphic,” says Smith, adding that young people may be responding differently to body-image messages in online porn than they do when trying to live up to the look of a favorite influencer, for instance. The natural developmental curiosity about sex combined with content that is intentionally created to be addictive can be problematic for some kids, she says.

“We have some young people who are so impulsive and engaged in it that they don’t know how to stop,” she says. “It all plays a role in how young people see themselves.”

Practical tips for boosting positive self-image

Research into body positivity messaging through social media is just beginning, so it’s early to draw conclusions. However, what makes a difference to your child’s positive self-image is much closer to home, Smith says.

“We do know that family really plays a role,” she says. “Our experiences with our parents, and the way they talk about body image, the way that your family talks about it definitely affects how you see yourself.”

As a parent, what you say matters. Here are some key things to keep in mind about the influence you have as a parent or caregiver — and tips for helping your child feel positive about their body:

  • Curb diet talk. “Explicit, active encouragement for kids to lose weight and participate in dieting techniques influence body dissatisfaction,” Smith says.
  • Adopt a weight-neutral approach by encouraging healthy eating and regular physical activity. “Avoid fat-talk and appearance-based teasing.”
  • Recognize that body image is part of your child’s sense of self, so focus on strengths that aren’t related to appearance. Help your child find their passions and support their interests as they grow.
  • Approach screen time with intention. “Have some family ground rules,” Smith says. “I’m an advocate for the phone not belonging to the child. The phone belongs to the parent. Monitor it every now and then to see what they’re looking at and have conversations around what they think about what they are seeing.”

Most of all, don’t worry about being perfect, says Smith. “There’s no manual embedded in our brains and we make mistakes. But we can reset, we can learn more and return to make different choices. That’s fair game.”

Signs your child is struggling with self-image

Negativity can creep into your child’s everyday life, and it’s sometimes hard to be resilient, especially to direct comments about appearance. Look out for signs that your child is struggling to cope, especially if the signs persist. These might be:

  • Excessive worry about physical appearance and the judgment of others
  • Stomach aches, headaches and other physical symptoms
  • Withdrawing from social activities and friends
  • Sadness and hopelessness

“These are indicators of low mood or anxious thoughts, especially if it happens over a period of days. If it’s impacting their functioning, that’s when we start to say maybe it’s time to talk to someone,” Smith says.

Also, listen carefully to what your child might be saying about their body. Phrases like “I don’t like the way I look,” or “I’m ugly,” or “People are teasing me because I’m too skinny,” or “People call me fat,” can be indicators that your child is struggling to cope. If your child is obsessive about looking in the mirror or scrolling social media, spark a conversation about what they are seeing.

Don’t wait! Encourage body positivity from an early age

Never underestimate your influence. Your body positivity messages may remain in your child’s heart and mind for a lifetime.

Your child will grow and be exposed to influences at day care, school, summer camp, clubs, sports and more. However, a solid foundation of positive self-image can help forge resilience against the negative messages they’ll see and hear throughout life.

Support your childs positive body image

You don’t have to be perfect, Smith says, but be mindful of your influence at home.

“Prevention starts at home,” she says. ”Set a good example for your child with the value of a nutritious variety of foods and a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, physical activity, talking about food in healthy ways, encouraging them to be active, building their healthy self-esteem and monitoring their technology and social media use.”

Content sponsored by the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. Visit flinnfoundation.org.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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