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For the generation growing up in the age of social media, pressure to look, feel and live a certain way can be crippling. As social networks bombard young people with unrealistic expectations of beauty, health and happiness, the vulnerable are looking to Parliament for action. Noa Hoffman reports
Young people today are faced with no shortage of seemingly life-altering pressures. Whether it’s securing a place at university, finding employment or being able to afford rent, at times the modern world can feel like a never-ending obstacle course, with new challenges emerging the minute old hurdles are overcome.
No generation has it easy, and every age is burdened by its unique stresses. But people finding their feet in the third decade of the 21st millennium face a new type of difficulty, one that the generations who came before may struggle to understand. The pressure is that of social media, and in particular the way it incessantly enforces unrealistic and sometimes dangerous expectations of beauty, health and happiness.
Social networks have done a great deal of good for society, but as Parliament is aware, the scale of the challenges accompanying it are vast and complex. The Online Safety Bill aims to address some of the more concerning aspects of the internet, including stamping out cyber abuse and protecting children from harmful content. However the issue of apps covertly distorting how young people view their bodies, and the accompanying impact on their self-worth, has received less political attention. It’s a problem that can contribute to physical and mental health issues ranging from chronic low self-esteem to serious cases of disordered eating.
Dr Luke Evans, the Conservative MP for Bosworth, is among a growing number of parliamentarians concerned by the rising level of problems around body image facing young people. Prior to being elected, Evans worked as a GP, where increasing numbers of patients would come to him deeply unhappy with the way they look.
“When I became a doctor, I started getting more young people coming in to say, ‘I’ve got a real issue, I want to bulk up for this or I want to slim down for that,’” Evans says.
When I became a doctor, I started getting more young people coming in to say, ‘I’ve got a real issue, I want to bulk up for this or I want to slim down for that’
Throughout history, society has shifted through variations of the ideal body. Evans, who “grew up in the age of Baywatch,” recalls how watching bulky lifeguards run along the beach led him to consider ways to attain a similar physique. But unlike in decades past, today’s young people are constantly exposed to so-called perfect bodies because they are contained within apps on their phones.
Hope Virgo, a prominent mental health campaigner who has spoken openly about her battle with eating disorders, is also concerned about the way social media can distort young people’s concept of body image and health.
“Over the last two years we have seen a lot more wellness influencers popping up who have these modern, idealised bodies that aren’t normal bodies,” Virgo says.
“A lot of the people that we’re looking at online are probably not actually that healthy. But because they’re thin, or in so-called ‘good shape,’ we automatically assume they are.”
Online “influencers” – people with large social media followings – regularly fill their profiles with images of slim bodies in luxury locations. The pictures, which are often heavily edited to remove perceived blemishes, are thrust into the view of impressionable young adults by social media algorithms. Consequently, young people find themselves bombarded with distorted representations of “normal” bodies and happy lives. Indirectly, they are presented with the idea that to be liked, receive compliments, or be followed online, they need to look a particular way and have access to certain material goods.
Influencers sometimes accompany images with tips on how to achieve a body like theirs. Some have recommended their followers try “skinny teas” – laxatives with questionable long-term effectiveness – as well as food and exercise regimes unrealistic for young people already juggling school, university, or the workplace.
“I know from the work I’m doing in schools with young kids, a lot of them have been hugely affected by social media, particularly around people’s body size,” Virgo says.
“It’s difficult because we know that bad body image doesn’t necessarily cause an eating disorder. But I do feel with this generation of people struggling with eating disorders, a lot of it is massively linked to modern society and pressures around image.”
Virgo, who is in the late stages of recovering from years of disordered eating, says on bad days she is “very mindful not scrolling on my [Instagram] explore bar, not looking and finding myself down a rabbit hole of fitness influences”.
And these concerns are not only held by individuals – businesses are beginning to sound the alarm as well.
In a stand against “the reality of how they’re impacting people’s mental health,” beauty brand Lush recently announced plans to shut down its Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat accounts.
Jack Constantine, the cosmetics company’s Chief Digital Officer, told the Today programme that tech giants needed to rectify “their craving for the algorithm to be able to constantly generate content regardless of whether it’s good for the users or not”.
“Say you’re a person suffering from anorexia – [they shouldn’t] feed you more content that is going to fuel that in a negative way,” Constantine said.
A report commissioned by the Women and Equalities Committee last year found that more than 60 per cent of adults feel negative or very negative about their body most of the time. While poor body image affects all ages and genders, the issue peaks among the young, with 66 per cent of children feeling negative about the way they look most of the time.
So what, if anything, can Parliament do to aid the situation? Evans believes a good place to start is mandating social media users to signpost where photos of bodies have been digitally altered.
“What I mean by that is making your biceps bigger, or your waist smaller, because the biggest concern I have is no matter what you eat, or how you train, you can never achieve that look,” Evans says.
“That’s the big worry. It creates this warped sense of reality that you can never achieve.”
It creates this warped sense of reality that you can never achieve
Hannah Williams, a 23-year-old social media journalist who has previously battled bad body image and disordered eating, believes labelling would be “a stepping stone in the right direction”.
“It would definitely have a positive impact,” she says. “If I saw a label saying, ‘Oh, they don’t actually look like that,’ it would be a step towards thinking, ‘It’s fine that you don’t look like that either’.”
Some on “the right side” of Evans’ party have voiced concerns that enforced labelling would be another instance of “a Conservative government wanting to ban more stuff”.
But the MP is convinced his policy encapsulates Conservative principles.
“If you believe in free markets, and that the perfect market needs perfect information, this is simply that,” Evans says.
The MP uses the example of booking a hotel. A holiday goer wouldn’t want a travel agent or booking website to present them with digitally altered images of potential places to stay – “that’s false advertising”.
“I use that argument to the people who are worried about this being big government sticking its nose in. It isn’t that at all. It’s simply saying there’s a problem here.
“There are hundreds of images you scroll through in a few minutes. So it creates the perception wherever you look that there are loads of fantastically good-looking people all around who you’ve got to try and aspire to. Actually, the world isn’t like that.”
A second step Evans wants Parliament to take is to include in the Online Safety Bill a requirement on social media companies to recognise body image as a potential area of harm for users, meaning they would be required by Ofcom to take steps to curtail unhealthy content.
Doing this, the MP believes, would place additional duties of care on social media.
“Social media companies can make a big difference by having that responsibility and being driven to follow up on it,” Evans says.
Issues pertaining to body image and disordered eating can be difficult to carve space for on the political agenda, particularly as Parliament is preoccupied with matters around Brexit, social care, Covid and immigration.
However Virgo, Williams, and Evans are certain the issue requires immediate attention.
“I don’t think it’s seen as a matter of urgency,” Virgo says. “This is a real problem that is affecting millions of people and unless it’s tackled with that kind of urgency, it’s going to just keep getting worse.”
Last month, former Facebook product manager turned whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee her former employer’s algorithms “prioritise extreme content”.
For young people struggling with body image, this can involve being continually directed towards influencers promoting diet products. It can also take shape in the less sinister but equally problematic form of being bombarded by accounts showing so-called beautiful men and women – people who look nothing like them but create the distorted perception that physical “perfection” is what young people should aspire to.
“Surely that should spur Parliament on to at least investigate and see what’s happening,” Williams said.
“It’s become such a widespread problem that more impactful policies need to be introduced.”
Evans is confident Members of Parliament are opening their eyes to the problem – even older MPs and peers who may struggle to understand the very modern phenomenon of influencers and “skinny teas”.
After launching his campaign to #RecogniseBodyImage he noticed colleagues and the public were expressing strong interest in the issue.
“When we first shared the campaign on Facebook, half a million people saw it organically, which is incredible. It shows the appetite is there.
“People come to you and talk to you, saying, ‘I want to share this message,’ and, ‘Why can’t we do more about it?’
“It’s squeezing it onto the agenda that’s the hard part.”
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