April 30, 2014 at 10:37 AM ET
Not too long ago, girls might have stressed about being "bikini-ready" every spring when swimsuit magazines would hit the stands. Boys might have done a few extra push-ups after seeing Wolverine's abs. But now, thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other always-on social media, kids are exposed to a 24/7 parade of bikini bodies, six-pack abs, and just-right hair.
It's not just celebrities pushing idealized images of human perfection. It's your teens' friends posting pictures of themselves and each other, for the world to see and comment on. What's worse, many of these moments are captured seemingly unplanned, increasing kids' anxiety about looking "perfect" —but effortlessly so — at all times.
Appearance ideals have always been unrealistic, but never before have kids been able to dip into such a deep well of judgment and criticism so easily. In fact, body dissatisfaction appears to be on the rise in the U.S. According to a study by the Keep it Real Campaign, 80 percent of 10-year-old American girls have been on a diet. Examples of negative teen body image are all over the Web. In YouTube videos, kids ask an Internet audience to tell them if they're pretty or ugly. They rate each other on Instagram. They bare themselves and beg for feedback on formspring.me. They edit their selfies and drink in advice about how to improve their online image.
Why are teens turning to the Internet for body image validation? Well, because they can. In adolescence, self-consciousness and the need for peer-validation are at their height, and the Internet acts as a kind of "super peer," providing a quick route to satisfying both concerns.
But no one knows how all this criticism and judgment affect teens' body image. Research on media and body image to date has focused on so-called "traditional" mainstream media —TV, movies, music, magazines, advertising — containing unrealistic, idealized, and stereotypical portrayals of body types. But in a world where the feedback is constant, often negative, frequently public, and interactive it can't be good.
Body image doesn't just happen. It's a complex phenomenon influenced by many factors, including parents, peers, and social contexts. But we know that media messages play a powerful role in shaping gender norms and body satisfaction.
Given that young people today are no longer only passive consumers of media —they're also creating and sharing peer-to-peer media messages about boys' and girls' appearances — they have the tools of change in their hands. But they need guidance on how to use them. Parents are in a unique position to help their kids counteract negative messages by encouraging them to use media positively, creatively, and responsibly. And above all, to learn to value themselves as complex individuals -- not just another pretty face.
Caroline Knorr is parenting editor of Common Sense Media