New study about beauty ideals on the internet

To mark Safer Internet Day 2024,  the Austrian Safer Internet Centre presented the results of a new youth study on "Beauty ideals on the internet". The study examines the effects of digital media use on young people's body-related self-image. To this end, 400 young people between 12 and 17 years old were questioned about their experiences, supplemented by four in-depth focus groups with 56 participating pupils. The results show that the pressure on young people to conform to unrealistic body images is high. At the same time, the important role of parents and other caregivers in dealing with beauty ideals becomes clear.

Date 2024-02-26 Author Austrian Safer Internet Centre Section awareness, research, sid Topic media literacy/education Audience media specialist, organisations and industry, parents and carers, research, policy and decision makers, teachers, educators and professionals
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Body images on the internet and in social networks put young people under pressure

Young people feel under great pressure due to the omnipresent idealised body images in the digital space: More than half of the young people surveyed in the study would like to change something about their appearance, and more than a quarter have already considered cosmetic surgery. Social media and influencers, in particular, are said to have a major influence on self-perception. However, young people also see opportunities to escape this pressure - at least in theory.

The infographic of the study "Beauty ideals on the internet" is available for download in German (PDF, PNG) and in English (PDF, PNG).

Digital imagery increases pressure on young people 

The pressure such ideals exert on young people is nothing new: the media and personal environment have always had a particularly strong influence on how young people perceive their bodies. In a phase of life in which one's identity is not yet firmly established, and feelings of self-worth are often only weakly developed, unrealistic demands on appearance can be a great burden. Currently, not only edited images but also photos of young people produced by artificial intelligence are flooding the internet.

Good looks are important for girls and boys 

Around 70 per cent of the young people surveyed are at least "fairly satisfied" with their appearance. Nevertheless, more than half (51 per cent) would like to change something about their body, with the figure rising to 60 per cent for girls.

However, both genders attach great importance to their appearance - offline and online. For example, 61 per cent of all respondents post photos or videos in which they can be seen and attach great importance to their appearance. It is particularly important to them to look beautiful (68 per cent), stylish (64 per cent) and slim (54 per cent). Looking sexy is important to 34 per cent, with boys (40 per cent) placing significantly more value on this than girls (27 per cent). Contrary to popular belief, this shows that focusing on one's appearance is no longer just a girl's issue. Young people use light, poses and/or mobile phone angles (54 per cent) and edit photos and videos, for example, with filters (41 per cent) to look as good as possible.

Social networks and influencers have a major influence on self-perception 

Social networks impact self-perception and influence whether you think you are beautiful - two-thirds of young people (65 per cent) agree. Girls (76 per cent) and respondents aged 15 and over (78 per cent) agree with this statement.

Comparisons with others play a major role - and young people are particularly exposed to these on the internet. Almost three-quarters (71 per cent) of young people confirm that the images they consume on social networks lead them to compare themselves with other people. Over a quarter (27 per cent) emphasise the negative consequences and state that they feel bad after scrolling through the various social media feeds. Influencers from the beauty and fitness sectors have an influence on children and young people, according to three-quarters of respondents (74 per cent). Around half (53 per cent) state that they have already changed something about their own appearance based on corresponding images. Just as many young people have already bought products recommended by influencers. 28 per cent have even considered cosmetic surgery.

Insults about appearance are also commonplace online 

Not only do young people have to contend with unrealistic beauty ideals on the internet, but they also have to fear being subjected to insults about their appearance. 74 per cent have already experienced such a situation. Girls (84 per cent) report experiencing derogatory comments on the internet and social networks. Perhaps this is why avatars play an increasingly important role in the digital world. After all, almost a third (30 per cent) state that such an avatar should look as good as possible.

Strategies against the beauty craze: reality checks, social media breaks and mutual support

 Young people cite various strategies to avoid being negatively influenced by beauty ideals on the internet. These include dealing with self-perception: working on self-acceptance (67 per cent), actively trying not to be pressurised (60 per cent) and questioning why the content they consume stresses them out or creates pressure (55 per cent) are seen as helpful. Another option mentioned by the young people in the focus groups was a "reality check" - in other words, "going out and seeing what people are really like". This makes you realise the discrepancy between the distorted online portrayal of people and their actual appearance.

Another strategy cited by young people is a conscious approach to social networks. Above all, this includes spending less time on social networks (63 per cent), taking social media breaks (60 per cent) and specifically following influencers or content that is good for you (60 per cent).

Mutual support is also seen as relevant: Constantly complimenting each other on their appearance among friends is seen as helpful by 59 per cent, while 38 per cent advocate making fun of stressful content together and laughing about it.

Even if young people are aware of these strategies, they sometimes find it difficult to implement them. For example, while 63 per cent of young people in the survey stated that spending less time on social networks would be a good approach, the focus groups showed that they often find it difficult to avoid the pull of online content.
Learning to deal critically with beauty ideals - parents are particularly challenged 
In addition to teachers and online platforms, parents, in particular, are called upon to support young people in dealing critically with beauty ideals on the internet and in developing a healthy body-related self-image. 57 per cent of respondents are of this opinion.

However, parents often do not have sufficient media skills themselves. Young people also need support to help their children use media competently. Schools have a key role to play in reaching parents and offering them educational material. At the same time, 47 per cent also see schools as an important place to address young people directly. Young people see many opportunities to address the issue of beauty ideals in the classroom. Encouraging a critical examination of the topic and promoting young people's media skills is a crucial task for teachers.

However, the platform operators are also required to create the most diverse range possible for users.  However, the young people also see the potential for improvement here: 63 per cent of the young people surveyed would like edited images to be labelled.

The Austrian Safer Internet Centre supports with various offers 

The Austrian Safer Internet Centre offers numerous measures and information materials to support young people with all challenges relating to body-related self-image. As part of workshops and parents' evenings, with the help of a collection of FAQs on self-presentation, various teaching materials and much more, interested parties receive concrete help and suggestions on the topic. The new ISPA brochure "Beauty ideals on the internet: tips for confidently dealing with beauty Ideals in virtual worlds" provides information on the topic and supports it with tips for a self-determined approach to physical ideals on the internet and on social media. An online quiz on beauty ideals and filters also offers a fun way to sensitise children and young people.

About the study

 The study "Beauty Ideals on the Internet" was conducted by the Institute for Youth Culture Research and Cultural Mediation on behalf of the Austrian Institute for Applied Telecommunications (ÖIAT) and ISPA - Internet Service Providers Austria as part of the EU initiative. During the survey period (December 2023), 400 young people between the ages of 11 and 17 took part, representative according to age, gender, and educational background. In addition, four focus group discussions were conducted with 56 young people between 13 and 19 years old.

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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