Talk to someone now. Call our National Helpline on 1800 33 4673. You can also chat online or email

Talk to someone now. Call our National Helpline on 1800 33 4673. You can also chat online or email

Season 1, episode 4

Young people, body image and #socialmedia

Social media is a huge driver of body image issues and young people are particularly at risk. Packed with unrealistic images and ideals, social platforms can be an incubator for mental illness – including eating disorders.

In this episode we hear from young Instagram creator Jenna Abbasi who explains how social media affected her eating disorder. We also talk to Zak, a year ten student, about how he manages his social media experience to stay body positive. And we hear expert advice from Danni Rowlands, Butterfly’s National Manager of Prevention Services, Suku Sukunesan, expert researcher in Applied Social Technology at Swinburne University, and Cara Webber from the eSafety Commission. Let’s talk.

Episode 4: Young people, body image and #socialmedia

Transcript

Sam Ikin

This is the butterfly podcast from your friends at Butterfly Foundation.

Social media can really affect how we relate to our bodies. Every time we log on, we’re exposed to unrealistic body ideals. And it’s hard not to draw unhelpful comparisons to our own bodies. We know that body image develops from early childhood, and it’s more intensely shaped in late childhood through puberty. This is when body dissatisfaction most often begins. In this episode, we’re going to dive into how to use social media and stay positive about your body, especially if you’re a young person.

Jenna

At first, it felt quite toxic, and it felt like a competition on who’s the most unwell and learning about detailed behaviours and numbers.

Zak

If people are to post something, and someone calls them overweight or too skinny, it would really affect their mental health, and how they feel they need to now go about getting a more ideal body.

Danni Rowlands

People are feeling more dissatisfied and we’re having more incidents of disordered eating and eating disorders in people of all ages.

Cara Webber

We’re dispelling the myth that social media is truth. Social media platforms are very curated.

Sam Ikin

Friends, parents, teachers and wider society, including social media platforms can play a role in making or breaking a positive body image. For younger, more impressionable minds, it’s easy to get drawn into every post that you see. That makes young people particularly vulnerable. When it comes to maintaining a positive body image Butterfly has six quick tips that can make a huge difference. I’ll go through them as we make our way through the episode. They’ll be like little ad breaks, but better. Let’s do one now. We’ll be right back after this.

Ways to be #bodypositive.

Tip number one: Focus on what your body can do.

Think of the millions of unique things that your body helps you do every single day.

This is a great reminder that you’re much more than just the way you look.

For more, go to Butterfly.org.au.

Sam Ikin

And welcome back. Research tells us that most young people compare themselves to others on social media, and in most cases, they wish they looked like someone they follow.

Danni Rowlands

We know the body comparisons, at the best of times, make feeling good in our body a challenge.

Sam Ikin

Danni Rowlands is Butterfly’s Prevention Services National Manager. She’s a bit like a real-life superhero. Her job is to try to prevent people from developing eating disorders or body image issues in the first place. It’s a tough gig and every day that passes, it gets a little bit tougher.

Danni Rowlands

Through the lens of social media, that is definitely intensified as a result of having just a far greater platform and more access to people of all different walks of life, and the way that they look in the way that they live. And unfortunately, that body comparison is one of the greatest things that is driving some body dissatisfaction in young people.

Zak

Hi, my name is Zak. And I’m in year 10. I want to be a sports journalist when I leave school.

Sam Ikin

How much of a part of your life does social media play?

Zak 

A big part. It’s how I communicate with all my friends. It’s where I go to get information, pretty much. I’d say I don’t use my phone too much a day, but I use it a bit. And when I go on my phone, it’s always to check social media, talk to my mates, check what’s on Instagram. So, it plays a big part in terms of how much I use it.

Sam Ikin

Zak says that he can see the impact that a negative experience on social media can have on his classmates. And the impact is huge.

Zak

If people are to post something, and someone calls them overweight or too skinny in the comments section, it would really affect their mental health and how they feel they need to now go about getting a more ideal body. And then there’s also these really extreme fitness and weight loss things that I feel aren’t really for the better. They’re just for making money and making people feel insecure in their own bodies.

Sam Ikin

An increasing number of young people are either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their bodies. And more and more are using social media far more frequently. Every time someone logs onto social media, they’re exposed to the appearance, beauty and body ideals of celebrities or influencers. The problem is that it’s difficult not to start comparing yourself to them.

Danni Rowlands 

These issues are increasing, and people are feeling more dissatisfied and we’re having more incidents of disordered eating and eating disorders in people of all ages. Then the research is confirming this – that the exposure to these ideals and imagery on social media is actually having an adverse effect on body image and body satisfaction and, unfortunately, driving some more serious issues.

Jenna

When I was younger, I remember being bullied, especially over social media. And I felt like I always need to prove who I was and be likeable.

Sam Ikin

That’s Jenna. She’s an Instagram creator and influencer who suffered from anorexia since she was 14.

Jenna

I’d always see people posting their highlights, and it would make me feel like I was missing out and needed to post similar things. Even as an adult – social media being filled with mutual friends, acquaintances, people that probably didn’t care about what I was posting because we didn’t talk. But seeing highlights of people you don’t really know kind of made me feel like I didn’t fit in.

Sam Ikin

We’ll hear more from Jenna and Zack later in the show but first, let’s take a body positivity break.

Ways to be #bodypositive.

Tip number two: Question what you see in the media.

As someone who’s worked in the media for 20 years, take it from me; question everything. Next time you see an ideal body ask yourself what goes into looking that way? The answer is probably a lot of strategically placed lights and crafty camera angles.

But even if it’s not, how many people do you see in everyday life that look like that? Is it realistic or helpful to compare yourself to that standard? Chances are, you’re being hugely unfair on yourself, and you could be aspiring to standards that are all smoke and mirrors anyway. For more go to Butterfly.org.au.

And welcome back. So, teenagers comparing themselves to celebrities or influencers who post unrealistic images on social media is a driver of poor body image. But there’s a deeper, more concerning trend which is more difficult to spot.

Suku Sukunesan

It’s a downward spiral, I would say.

Sam Ikin

Dr. Suku Sukanesen is a mental health researcher and social media expert with Swinburne University.

Suku Sukunesan

Kids with eating disorders probably turn to social media for support, and also to look for similar people where they actually care and share emotional support. But then what you find is, they might be reinforcing each other. And without proper supervision or the right intervention by platforms, you find that their ideas are triggering each other and making themselves even riskier to eating disorders.

Jenna

I know for me, when I was a part of that community, I felt like, “Oh, maybe I’m not sick enough because I’m not eating what they’re eating or what if they think I’m suddenly recovered just because I ate this meal out and I’m happy”. So, it can be toxic like that, because I’ve definitely experienced that side of it. I’m sure many others do too, because see the similar things that I was reading and exposed to. So that’s very damaging as well. Posting meal plans and numbers and, yeah, body image…

Sam Ikin 

So they’re comparing degrees of eating disorder in a competitive kind of way?

Jenna

Definitely. Yeah. It’s like, who weighs this much, who’s in therapy, who’s gone to hospital… I know for me, when I posted that I was in hospital when I was a lot younger, like 14, I remember feeling like posting about it would be a reward because people would think, “Oh, she’s like, the most sickest!” And it was just very, very toxic. So I was glad that I had left those traits behind.

Suku Sukenasan

They might share images. They might share tips. What are the techniques that you actually use? What are the techniques that I don’t know? Do you have any ideas? So I’ve seen this sort of discussion going on. And to some extent they have people coaching them, or willing to become a buddy or a mentor.

Sam Ikin

Wow.

Suku Sukunesan 

And it’s almost like sharing services.

Sam Ikin

Wow. So okay, it’s almost like a dark web where they use certain hashtags to connect with other people.

Suku Sukunesan

Yes, you’re correct. A lot of discussions are coded in that sense. They use their own type of approach. So you have more codes in this sort of tribal community communication approach. And hashtags and the wording they use starts to move around. And then there’s people who would like to offer services, look for these hashtags, and then connect it to this community.

Jenna 

When I was developing my eating disorder, I felt like, well, this is my new thing. Like, I’m good at this. What can I do next? And it was interesting to see other people’s journeys, and it was just, I knew it was bad, but it felt so good at the same time because it was self-destructive for me. And I was in the mindset of, ‘Well, nothing else is better. Like I’m not doing good at school, nothing else like this is what I have, this is all I have’, kind of thing. It felt bad but good at the same time.

Sam Ikin

Zak says friends of his who are just looking for good health information, log on to social media, and end up getting what he believes is really bad advice.

Zak 

People I know that are looking to lose weight, they’ll go online, to have a look and it’s just all the wrong things, telling them what to do to. It’s like this extreme body or being super skinny. It’s like an impossible task and it forces people to eat really low amounts of food which damages their body and obviously their mental health as well.

Sam Ikin 

So it all seems a little bit dark and gloomy at this point, but it will get better I promise. This seems like a pretty good point to take a body positivity break.

Ways to be #bodypositive

Tip number three: Say “thank you”.

Next time someone gives you a compliment, try saying ‘thank you’ rather than shrugging it off. If someone says, “you look great in that outfit”, don’t say, “Well, it only cost me $15”.

Say “thank you” and acknowledge that they just said you look great. And you know what, you do look great. So, take that compliment.

Showing gratitude can go a long way to improve how we feel about ourselves. For more go to Butterfly.org.au.

So, getting back to these really unhealthy behaviour patterns on social media Danni says it’s something Butterfly has been working with social media platforms on, but it’s a really difficult thing to police. Late last year Butterfly teamed up with Instagram to run a campaign aimed at supporting positive use of social media and helping people share their lives in ways that feel comfortable and authentic. It included a series of videos on the platform itself.

Instagrammer 

I love that Instagram’s being used to share some really valuable content and educate people about social issues.

Sam Ikin

It was a really successful campaign and it saw some powerful positive content go live. But while there’s more and more beneficial content being created, the negative practices are also bubbling along below the surface.

Danni Rowlands

Unfortunately, when a person is vulnerable or if a person is unwell and particularly experiencing an eating disorder, some people will actually seek out things that will drive their eating disorder behaviour, or keep that person in a state that is, unfortunately, really unwell. So, we are aware of that, obviously something that we need to continually work with, including with the platform developers, ensuring that there are safeguards. And ensuring that there’s a consideration that there are things happening behind the scenes that are, unfortunately, a barrier to people recovering and becoming well, or living a more healthy life as a result of being stuck in places which drive these behaviours and competitive aspects of eating disorders.

Sam Ikin

So, what can we do to protect kids from this kind of behaviour? Well, Dr. Sukunesan says that he’s currently in talks with major social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram to help them integrate mental health safeguards. But he says policing the competitive behaviour that we’ve just described is easier said than done.

You said that the platforms need to intervene at some point. And we know that they intervene in political discussions and in many other ways. Is the intervention there when it comes to eating disorders?

Suku Sukunesan

I would say yes, there has been a growing sort of steps taken by certain platforms. So, some hashtags are automatically barred. But then the problem is the text space. For example, we would like to bar the word ABC. What then users start to do is they start to use double A or double B, then it becomes AABC, which still then becomes part of the conversation and still allowed, and it’s not banned. So there needs to be a bit more intelligence in understanding this.

Sam Ikin

And that’s where the eSafety Commission comes in.

Cara Webber

All of our education and prevention programs around e-safety are focused on the health and wellbeing for the mental health of all Australians, but particularly young Australians.

Sam Ikin 

Cara Webber is a senior advisor with the eSafety Commission. But before we hear from Cara we’re going to take another one of our body positivity breaks. We’ll be right back.

Ways to be #bodypositive

Tip number four: Unfollow people who make you feel crap about yourself.

For a positive newsfeed, try following people who you admire who have different interests and different body shapes.

A little bit of careful curation and strategic muting or blocking can completely change your social media experience. For more go to Butterfly.org.au.

So back to Cara Webber from the eSafety Commission. It’s her job to devise ways to educate kids and help them build resilience.

Cara Webber 

We focus on that – predominantly through schools and through the types of education that we put forward via schools, but also through messaging and campaigning directly to young people and their parents and significant adults that they might work with in their lives.

Sam Ikin

Cara says the commission is really concerned about these negative competitive behaviours, and they’re watching them closely.

Is there anything anyone can do about this?

Cara Webber 

Yeah, it’s a really great question. And one of the challenges that we face is that so much of the content that gets hosted or posted happens overseas. So you’re dealing with cross jurisdictional issues. It’s not as easy – regulating globally. We can only focus on content that is produced and uploaded in Australia. So when it comes to young people seeking out certain types of information, again, it comes back to giving them the skills to understand that it’s okay to be curious, but certainly they might find themselves actually entering into spaces that make them feel uncomfortable. Or, if they are finding their sense of identity by being able to find other people—following hashtags or joining communities that they are—making sure that they are countering that by talking openly or candidly with adults around them about what they’re doing. Making sure that they’re given the skills to deconstruct what they’re seeing.

Sam Ikin

Every second, more than 9000 posts are published on twitter. In the space of a day, almost 100 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram. Cara says given the sheer volume of content going out every single day, no platform could be expected to have a team big enough to curate everything.

Cara Webber

Until we get that huge volume of human moderators, we’re going to see stuff slip through the cracks. With AI trying to identify and automatically remove content that may be related to harmful topics, it’s very hard for AI to actually read nuance and to necessarily understand a backstory or why certain images or pictures or posts may be detrimental.

Sam Ikin

Given the sheer enormity of that task, Danni says that it’s important we concentrate on the children and helping them build up a resilience or an immunity to some of these dangerous aspects of social media.

Danni Rowlands

We absolutely have to help young people to build their resilience and ensure that the experience they have on social media is a really positive one. Unfortunately, some young people don’t realise how the messages and the imagery is infiltrating and, and how the internalisation of ideals is actually affecting them. It’s kind of like, “oh, it’s all fun, it’s all okay”. We have to keep building the social media literacy skills in young people. But the platforms absolutely have a responsibility. If they develop the platform, they’re in control of the safeguards. It’s about supporting them to ensure that the platforms are safe and do no harm to the people who use them.

Sam Ikin 

Dr Sukunesan is looking for a more long-term approach. He’s trying to encourage the social media platforms to employ clinicians themselves to help build in another level of online safety, this time around mental health.

Suku Sukunesan

And this is where the tricky part comes in. How do you resource this and how to resource the clinicians? And how do you train clinicians to support cyber psychology warfare—which I call it if I could? And this is going to be the next five to 10 years, what we’re looking at.

Sam Ikin

Let’s check in with Jenna and Zak and see if they do anything in particular to look after themselves when they’re online. But first, it’s time for another body positivity break.

Ways to be #bodypositive

Tip number five: Look for the good in other people.

Looking for the good in other people creates positive vibes and it can help you focus on your own strengths.

You don’t have to be overt about it and publicly compliment or thank them but that’s great too.

Just appreciate the little things that others do that make you feel good about yourself. For more go to Butterfly.org.au.

So back to helping young people build online resilience. Cara says the first step is to teach them what their options are.

Cara Webber 

What we really need to continue to do is help young people to understand that there’s no shame in reporting or seeking support. So when it comes to removal of content, for example, around eating disorders, often the stuff that we have removed which could be deemed as harmful or offensive to a young person or potentially damaging, has come as a result of bullying that’s occurred after those images appeared. So, we’re dealing with an issue where you’ve got young people who may be posting that into communities. It’s later when those images are used against them in a form of bullying, that we are then able to remove that content. So once a young person has reported to us that they are being seriously harassed, intimidated or abused, and often it’s through images, then we can work to have that stuff taken down. So two things there we need to make sure that young people understand. The stuff that they post doesn’t necessarily leave the internet and can be used adversely down the track.

Sam Ikin

So, once the line is crossed, then you can take decisive action. But up until then, it’s about educating and putting in some processes that might help people to navigate that safely.

Cara Webber

That’s exactly it. That’s why you’re a journalist and I’m not. You speak so eloquently. You know, that’s exactly it. Young people are going to make mistakes and they’re going to do things that perhaps have put themselves at potential risk. We need to also make sure that if a mistake has been made, or a person has made the wrong choice, that we help them to understand that they’re not the sum of their choice, that we can continue to move on and grow from our mistakes. And that if we get a young person to the point where they’re actually removing themselves from likeminded communities or unsafe communities, that we’re actually replacing that with other communities where they feel a very genuine sense of belonging. Unless you do that, they’re going to be reluctant to actually remove themselves from communities that are making them feel good, or making them feel sane in a certain way, whether it is negatively or positively.

Sam Ikin

We’re going back to Zak who’s on the ground and would be on the receiving end of a lot of these campaigns. He says a lot of the work by Butterfly and the eSafety Commission and other national bodies are really starting to work.

Zak 

It’s a topic that I feel people are becoming more aware of with more campaigns and things that are put out there. But a lot of people are still blind to the fact that these marketing ploys or these like hateful comments are normal and they shouldn’t be following them because it’s not within their best interest. A lot of people are still blind to that. And it’s not really with anyone I know. Mostly people I know are pretty aware. But you see stuff on Instagram, or Snapchat, and you can definitely say that there is a sense of blindness around the topic.

Sam Ikin

Danni Rowlands says there is a pretty simple way to tell whether or not your social media experience is healthy or not. It’s as simple as asking yourself, “is this still fun?”

Danni Rowlands

It’s okay to have fun with these platforms. But if it’s no longer fun or if you’re struggling with what you’re seeing, or you’re not liking the feelings that you’re having—and it might not be to a celebrity or an influencer, it might be a friend or another family member that you have that window into their life and what they’re posting—is to action that and to seek support. If it is becoming all-consuming and if you are thinking of the way you look or your body is not right, that’s the stuff that you need support with, because your body’s not the problem. The way you look is not the problem. Engaging in healthy and positive behaviours is what will help you to feel good in your body. And I think that’s really important.

Sam Ikin

Jenna says that she’s now in recovery, and she’s found a nice happy place in her social media world.

Jenna

I told myself that I want to be completely authentic and that I don’t care what people say. Even if they don’t accept, if they don’t like or follow, because I’ll know I’ll be writing my truth and my story and adding value to the world. Those who stay will feel genuine and I’ll feel grateful. So, I started YouTube, I was making little vlogs and videoing my recovery journey and just writing and using art as well. That’s what I basically do now, I just write about how I discovered parts of myself and how I was letting go of my eating disorder and how I work through anxiety and trauma to healing.

Sam Ikin

How is Zak, who’s in Grade 10, managing his social media experience? Well, for him, it’s all about choosing very carefully who he follows.

Zak

I love my team sports. I play footy in the winter, and cricket in the summer. And then to look after myself, it’s mostly just preparing for those seasons. But in the best way, where I enjoy it, but also feel like I’m getting something out of it.

Sam Ikin

That seems like a pretty good place to wrap things up. But we do have one more body positivity break to take. So here it is.

Ways to be #bodypositive.

Tip number six: Hang with positive people.

Surround yourself with people who get you and encourage you to feel confident.

You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. I think I heard that in a TED talk once. Whether it’s in real life or online, find your network and let them help you feel better about yourself.

For more go to Butterfly.org.au.

If you want some help staying positive on social media, there’s lots of resources to help you on Butterfly’s website, Butterfly.org.au. You’ll find more on those #bodypositivity tips as well as some great toolkits from Instagram produced for #Thewholeme campaign for both parents and for young people. And now there’s some new Love Your Body Week resources for schools and families.

To talk about body image and eating disorders, the Butterfly National Helpline has counsellors who know the pressures that young people face. They’re committed to providing free, confidential, nonjudgmental counselling. The number to call is 1800 33 46 73 that’s 1800 ED HOPE. You can also chat online or email support@butterfly.org.au. To contact that eSafety Commission, Cara has the details…

Cara Webber 

They should go to esafety.gov.au. There are various sections on the website that will help them with different issues and there are also areas to report inappropriate or abusive behaviours.

Sam Ikin

If you want to talk about anything we’ve raised in this podcast, please reach out. If you haven’t deleted your social media accounts after listening to this, jump on your favourite platform and get in touch. You can find all the links for the Butterfly Foundation at Butterfly.org.au. You can look me up— I’m Sam underscore Ikin on twitter. And if you like the Butterfly Podcast, please tell someone that you think might like it. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. The Butterfly podcast is an Ikin Media production for Butterfly Foundation. It’s written, produced, edited and hosted by me, Sam Ikin, but I do have a lot of help from Camilla Becket, Mitch Doyle and Belinda Kerslake. The theme music is from Cody Martin with additional music from Breakmaster Cylinder. Thanks to Dr. Suku Sukunesan, Cara Webber, Danny Rowlands, Jenna and Zak.

Listen to more episodes