How can parents and caregivers protect their children from the beauty craze on the internet?

Unattainable beauty ideals are putting young people under increasing pressure. How can parents support their children in dealing with this?

Date 2024-06-26 Author Austrian Safer Internet Centre Section awareness Topic advertising/commercialism, love, relationships, sexuality (online), media literacy/education Audience parents and carers
Two adolescents dancing in front of a smartphone on a tripod, recording themselves.

Parents and caregivers play a very important role in conveying a healthy body image - especially in times when young people are increasingly under pressure by beauty standards on the internet. Just recently, the Austrian Safer Internet Centre published a study showing how strongly social networks and influencers affect young people's perception of beauty. No wonder, as our children are constantly confronted with staged and edited images on TikTok, Instagram and other social media platforms.

Such unrealistic beauty standards can be very stressful - especially for adolescents entering puberty, as they are in a phase in which their bodies are beginning to change. If they are constantly confronted with images of perfect bodies during this phase, when their identity is not yet solidified and self-doubt is often the order of the day, this can lead to unattainable expectations of their own body.

At the same time, we must not forget that orientating ourselves towards others - including in social networks - is completely normal in this phase of growing up. Comparing yourself with others is just as much a part of this as putting yourself in the limelight and presenting yourself as well as possible. After all, the way we present ourselves to others fulfils an important function when it comes to exploring your own identity and finding out how you come across others.

Critically question unrealistic role models

Parents need to master this balancing act: not to demonise or even ban social networks per se, but to critically question the content that is consumed - together with their children. This can be done, for example, by discussing with them who the role models are that they are emulating; or by addressing the fact that there is hardly an unedited photo on Instagram, TikTok and other social media platforms, and that all content is staged. This can also be communicated in a very playful way, for example with the quiz on beauty ideals and beauty filters from Saferinternet.at.

What many people also don't realise: Some influencers are no longer even real people, but AI-generated models. Unfortunately, this is often very difficult to recognise and does not yet have to be addressed. Parents should educate their children about this and talk to them about influencer marketing. If children know the mechanisms of social networks and understand the intentions of influencers, this will help them in their search for realistic and accessible role models.

What role does appearance play in the family?

But it is not only the competent handling of content from the internet that is important. The importance of appearance in the family and manners at home are also very important. Parents and caregivers should fulfil their role model function here by paying attention to how they express criticism, avoid devaluations and give each other more compliments. Parents are allowed to tell each other more often that they find each other beautiful! At the same time, compliments should not just be limited to appearance, but should also emphasise the children's strengths of character again and again to boost their self-esteem.

Using social networks competently

It is also helpful for parents and caregivers to reflect on their own media consumption: how do they deal with content that influences them negatively and puts them under pressure? Perhaps tips for their own child can be derived from this exercise of self-reflection? A good strategy is, for example, to unfollow accounts that cause stress or to actively search for content on social media that is good for you. Taking social media breaks together can also help to put some distance from stressful content.

The individual platforms offer various setting options to spend less time on social networks and restrict content that is not good. Parents and caregivers can use the simple step-by-step instructions from Saferinternet.at to find out which settings are helpful for their children. It is best for them to consider, together with their child, which time limits are sensible and which content should be banned from their stream.

Reality checks can take the pressure off

There are many ways to strengthen children's self-efficacy and promote their positive self-perception. A very simple but valuable tip for dealing with ideals of beauty comes up time and time again in conversations with young people themselves: go out on the street and do a "reality check" - in other words, see what people really look like instead of orientating yourself on pictures on social networks. This can also take some of the pressure off children to conform to unattainable ideals.

Find out more about the work of the Austrian Safer Internet Centre, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services – or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.     

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