What is the Media?
Media is a broad term, accounting for nearly every piece of content or advertising a person sees, hears, or interacts with throughout their day.
This includes more traditional forms of media, including newspapers, magazines, and radio, as well as newer forms of media, such as television, the internet, and social media.
All these platforms have in common the tendency to portray a specific body image, shape, size, and weight as “ideal.” Yet, this ideal is frequently unrealistic and unattainable.
How Does the Media Influence People?
The media has been shaping our view of the world for generations through many different forms, though, most recently, it’s media portrayed through our screens that have captured our attention.
Those aged 13-18 have nearly 9 hours of screen time each day.
In 2022, average screen time was up 17% among children aged 8-18, with those ages 8-12 spending an average of 5 ½ hours in front of a screen and those ages 13-18 reporting nearly nine hours of screen time on an average day. 
For children—and adults—the screen has replaced many other social outlets or activities that allow people to grow, learn, and engage in different environments.
And children, adolescents, and young adults are particularly susceptible to the messaging they see online. Media exposure can be especially harmful during formative years, leading to an unhealthy body image and the potential for developing an eating disorder.
The Media’s Effect on Eating Disorders
The amount of exposure to screens and other forms of media can greatly impact the way children and teens perceive others and themselves.
So much screen time has been linked to anxiety and depression—two of the biggest drivers of eating disorders.
But all types of media can contribute to the development of poor self-esteem and disordered eating habits in different ways.
The Ideal Body Type
For many generations, the media has portrayed the “ideal” female body as thin and the “ideal” male body as low in body fat and muscular. And this insistent image has been linked to a host of psychological issues in media consumers, including body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.
Sadly, the effect is more marked in adolescents—particularly adolescent females.  But the idea of the “perfect” body has also changed over the years and become even less attainable.
The female body ideal in the media has gotten leaner and thinner, while the male body shape has become stronger and more muscular. Male and female models in magazines and ads are often significantly under healthy body weights.
And in many cases, these models aren’t even completely “real.” Photos are commonly altered to make these bodies appear more “perfect” or “desirable.”
Impact of Social Media
The rise of social media has shifted the way that media can impact body image and the development of eating disorders.
Excessive use of social media has been shown to increase thoughts and behaviors that are related to eating disorders. The more time young adults and adolescents spend on social media across multiple platforms, the higher their risk of developing disordered eating patterns and body dissatisfaction. 
One of the most damaging factors of social media is the highly curated images that are presented as real, making the lifestyle they portray look attainable and contributing to deep feelings of dissatisfaction for those who can’t achieve this “perfect” life.
Many celebrities, brands, and other influencers also use their platforms to promote dieting and diet culture. Through an onslaught of hashtags, product pushing, and other misguided advice, these accounts connect the idea that weight loss or an “ideal” body type will lead to happiness or living your best life.
Has New Technology Made the Issue Worse?
The explosion of smartphones, tablets, and other portable screens has made the media practically unavoidable and available to virtually anyone, anywhere, at any time. It is no longer as simple as putting down the magazine or turning off the television.
And this level of exposure has likely compounded the problem. The more someone is exposed to unhealthy and unhelpful images and advice around body image, shape, weight, and size, the more likely they are to acclimate to these distorted ideas. This can then potentially lead to greater body dissatisfaction and a negative self-image.
Still, it’s possible to use this unprecedented reach of the media to spread a positive message. Popular social media platforms have taken steps toward raising awareness of the dangers of eating disorders, supporting and enhancing mental health, and making other changes to help their young and impressionable users. 
Some have implemented policies to keep certain cosmetic procedures and weight loss products off the feed of users under 18. Other changes allow people to filter out weight loss ads, and some platforms have introduced tools to connect users to mental health information and resources.
How Can Parents Help?
All types of media can dramatically impact a child’s perception of themselves. But parents can take some steps to help encourage positive body images and minimize the effect of the media.
Setting limits on the amount of screen time a child has can be a good first step toward limiting the impact of media on their self-image. This includes the time they spend on social networking sites.
Some parental controls may also allow parents to control access to certain media. A little bit of research can help ensure that kids are being exposed to content that’s positive, helps build confidence, and supports body positivity.
Talking to adolescents or teens can be scary, intimidating, or unpleasant, but it may be one of the best ways to help this vulnerable group maintain better mental health.
Talking about body image and discussing what a healthy and unhealthy body image is could play a big role in expanding their understanding. Stressing the importance of body acceptance and the concept that bodies can be healthy in a variety of shapes and sizes is also a good tactic.
But equally as important as speaking is listening. Asking children about images they see in the media and how they make them feel is a great way to have them start thinking about the issue and their own feelings. Really listen to what they have to say.
Many children may not even realize that the way things are portrayed in the media may not be the way things really are.
Point out marketing strategies to them, and explain how images in the media are tweaked to look more perfect or enticing.
Talk about the difference between “real life” and the seemingly glamorous icons that are depicted in the media. Discuss how these photos are often altered and how the body types portrayed are often not realistic, attainable, or healthy.
But perhaps even more powerful than pointing out the issues with outside images is setting a good example at home.
Exposure to the media alone does not cause an eating disorder. Children are always watching, and one of the best ways to foster a positive body image and healthy relationship with food is to be a role model for these things.
Finding Help for Eating Disorders or Restoring Body Image
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, a number of resources may provide some help.
National Eating Disorders Association
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) offers advice on helping or talking to people who may be struggling with these conditions, as well as information and resources on where to find treatment or recovery centers. 
Treatment and recovery programs have a wide range of options and resources for improving body image and eating habits. Eating disorder programs also offer:
- Educational resources
- Nutritional counseling
- Behavioral therapies
- Connections with support groups
Treatment also doesn’t necessarily need to happen at a treatment center. There are virtual eating disorder treatment programs that may be more convenient and even more effective than in-person programs for some.
All these approaches can help to improve body image. As participants learn to appreciate their bodies for what they do, they begin to shift the emphasis away from appearance only.
As part of eating disorder treatment and recovery programs, all mental health aspects of an eating disorder are addressed. In therapy, people will break down the issues that contribute to their disordered eating and poor body image. They’ll develop coping skills that translate into healthier thought patterns and behaviors.
The media may have a lot of influence, but a person’s own mind is ultimately stronger. When bolstered with the right kind of help, it is possible for someone to recovery from poor body image or an eating disorder.
- Media & Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). (2022). Retrieved September 24, 2022.
- Wenner Moyer, W. (2022, March 24). Kids as Young as 8 Are Using Social Media More Than Ever, Study Finds. The New York Times. Retrieved December 26, 2022.
- Morris, A. M., & Katzman, D. K. (2003). The impact of the media on eating disorders in children and adolescents. Paediatrics & child health, 8(5), 287–289.
- Sinha Dutta, S. (2022, March 28). Eating Disorders and Social Media. News Medical Life Sciences. Retrieved September 24, 2022.
- Study Shows Social Media May Play a Role in Eating Disorders Among Teens. (2020, February 25). Mental Health First Aid. Retrieved September 24, 2022.
- NEDA Feeding Hope. (2022). National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Retrieved September 24, 2022.