New Slovenian study shows that content on social networks has a strong influence on the well-being of young people

On the internet, adolescents are exposed to unrealistic beauty standards, idealised and sexualised images of people and their lifestyles. Failure to live up to such beauty standards imposed by unattainable and often graphically altered pictures online can have a negative impact on the well-being and mental health of young people, according to a new study conducted by the Slovenian Safer Internet Centre.  

Date 2022-08-24 Author Slovenian Safer Internet Centre Section awareness, research Topic cyberbullying, excessive use, love, relationships, sexuality (online), media literacy/education Audience children and young people, media specialist, parents and carers, teachers, educators and professionals
A smartphone screen showing a folder called 'Social media' with Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Clubhouse, Facebook apps inside.

Adolescence is indeed a vulnerable period of life for young people, especially when it comes to accepting their bodies and developing self-esteem. They can easily become obsessed with their appearance, feel dissatisfied with their bodies, have feelings of inferiority, feel pressured, frustrated and tense. 

All of this was reported by adolescents themselves in a survey conducted in February and March 2022 by the Slovenian awareness centre (Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ljubljana) as part of the activities for Safer internet Day. It included pupils from the last three grades of primary school, and secondary school students. 

Teenagers compare their bodies with images online 

The survey found that 45 per cent of young people, already in primary school, compare their face and body with the seemingly perfect images of influencers and celebrities online, and are therefore dissatisfied with their appearance. Almost 18 per cent state they do this frequently. In secondary school, the proportion is even higher: 59 per cent of teenagers compare themselves to influencers and almost a quarter (23 per cent) of them do this frequently.  

When looking at pictures of their friends online, 47% per cent of primary school teens and 61 per cent of secondary school teens sometimes or oftentimes feel that others’ lives are better than their own. It is therefore not surprising that 31 per cent of primary school teenagers sometimes (12 per cent state they do it often) apply filters and other enhancements to a picture taken with their mobile phone to make them look as good as possible. The percentages are similar for secondary school students. 

Unrealistic and graphically altered images on the internet should be labelled 

It is worrying that as many as a third (33 per cent) of secondary school girls are thinking about improving their appearance through surgery, compared to a quarter (24 per cent) of girls in the last three grades of primary school. The situation is slightly different for boys: 10 per cent of primary school boys considered changing their appearance, compared to only 6 per cent in secondary school. 

More than half of the surveyed teenagers (52 per cent in the last three years of primary school and 58 per cent in secondary school) agree with the statement that pictures of influencers and celebrities are often unrealistic and altered to look perfect and should therefore be labelled as such. This way, young people would not feel bad for not having such looks themselves, knowing those pictures are not real. 

Exclusion from social groups among peers on the internet is the most common reason for young people to feel unwell 

The survey results show that the most negative impact on teenagers' well-being in both primary and secondary school is caused by situations online where they feel excluded from groups of peers or are victims of online violence. 

53 per cent of teens in primary school and 57 per cent of teens in secondary school feel bad when they are excluded from a private group of classmates on a social networking site or app. When someone makes fun of them online, 42 per cent of primary school teens and 51 per cent of secondary school teens feel awful. Almost half (45 per cent of primary school teenagers and 49 per cent of secondary school students) feel uncomfortable when they see pictures online of a party they were not invited to. If someone does not reply for a long time to a message they have sent, 44 per cent of primary school teenagers and 42 per cent of secondary school teenagers feel bad. However, when they receive a negative comment on something they posted online, the percentage of those who feel bad is 31 per cent of primary school teenagers and 38 per cent of secondary school teenagers. In the case no one likes their posts online, 28 per cent of primary school teenagers and 36 per cent of secondary school teenagers feel sad.  

Another interesting instance is how looking at pictures from holidays and trips taken by classmates affects teenagers' well-being. The proportion of teenagers who feel bad in this situation and the proportion who feel good are equal. About two-fifths of respondents in primary and secondary school are affected one way or the other, while the other three-fifths state they are not affected at all. 

The proportion of negative experiences increases with age 

The age of the respondents also highlights the impact the internet has on their well-being. There is a big difference by age with regards to sleep deprivation caused by internet use. While only 37 per cent of seventh graders reported this in the survey, it is 44 per cent for eighth graders, 54 per cent for ninth graders and 64 per cent for high school students.  

Similar percentages were observed with the level of agreement with the statement “People are ruder and meaner to each other on the internet than they are in face-to-face conversations”. In seventh grade, 42 per cent of pupils agree, compared to 56 per cent in eighth grade, 60 per cent in ninth grade and 67 per cent in secondary school.  

The perception that peer pressure is particularly high on the internet also increases as teenagers get older. Less than a fifth of pupils (17 per cent) in seventh grade feel that pressure, compared to 28 per cent in eighth grade, a third (33 per cent) in ninth grade and 36 per cent in secondary school.  

The survey was conducted as part of Safer Internet Day (SID) 2022 activities by the awareness raising centre, which is part of the Centre for Social Informatics at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana. The survey took place in February and March 2022 and was part of the SID month activity package for primary and secondary schools. The package was available to teachers and educators who wanted to carry out an activity with their pupils or students on the topic of online safety. 486 primary school pupils and 246 secondary school students participated in the survey. 

Find out more about the work of the Slovenian 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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