Modern media and self esteem

20 Jul 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 20 Jul 2018

Image courtesy of ITV

More young people are calling Childline due to eating disorders. Media can affect self esteem - but while it is fair to ask for certain standards from providers, it is more important to prepare young people for life in the digital age.

Love Island is an extremely successful TV show. You might have noticed.

A changeable crowd of very attractive 20-somethings (or thereabouts) are hemmed into a luxury villa in Majorca, 24/7, with fewer beds than people.

The encouragement to pursue love and lust is fundamental and explicit, and these social interactions - between all the pretty faces - are the core idea behind the programme.

However, Love Island, as an experience, goes beyond the TV show; it takes up a huge amount of column inches in the traditional media and is widely discussed on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

It is an integrated media experience and, if not a phenomenon, then simply very popular to the point of saturation, in that modern form, with a constantly updating presence in all forms of media, all referring to one another, creating an upward spiral of content.

It might seem obvious, but it is important to keep in mind that while broadcast, print, website-based and social are all distinct things, they come together (and overlap in content) to comprise media, in general, and form an enormous part of our everyday lives.

Inevitably, alongside something of this nature, and this success, wider discussions take place.

The show is a massive hit for ITV but has repeatedly drawn the ire of Piers Morgan, one of the hosts of the channel's flagship breakfast show Good Morning Britain, and this week he asked if their should be a sister programme called Rough Island for "ugly people with brains" with only two rules for contestants to qualify: "You've got to have a brain cell and you can't be beautiful."


Mr Morgan is being typically rhetorical but there are serious questions behind his blunt proclamations:

Are we creating the right aspirations for people? Are there negative effects from bombarding the public with beautiful people, particularly with regards to self esteem and realistic body expectations?

Issues associated with these questions are important and, perhaps, growing.

Last week the NSPCC announced that its Childline service had seen a 22% growth in the number of young people calling about eating disorders and eating problems in 2017/18, when compared with the previous year.

Of the 5,934 counselling sessions that were carried out, 121 were in Northern Ireland. The organisation's “Are You There?” campaign is asking Westminster to fund to Childline so it can help more children and teenagers struggling with mental health issues.

One 15-year-old girl told Childline: "I compare myself to other people every day and how they have a better figure to me. I noticed that I was slightly bigger than some of the girls in my school and seeing people on social media didn’t help either. It has led to me watching weight loss videos and saving pictures of people who have the body I wish I had. At one point I was watching and comparing myself to people who have anorexia. I have tried starving myself and exercising so that I can become skinny all over. I feel like the odd one out and that everywhere I go I am being looked at and judged."

NSPCC Head of Childline Liz Rowe said: "Young people tell us that they feel under pressure to look a certain way and live a certain life, and it’s worrying that we are seeing so many children contact us about eating disorders as a result, in some cases when they are still at primary school."

Modern pressure

These are horrific circumstances. Childline provides a vital crisis service for young people. Its calls for funding should be taken seriously.

However, at the same time, we should all want the service to have as little demand as is possible.

Plenty has been written about the modern pressures teenagers face and, broadly, the causes and effects will be of little surprise to most.

Common Sense Media is a third-sector organisation based in the USA "dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology."

It says: "When the media celebrates certain types of behaviors and appearances, it can leave a strong impression on kids, shaping their ideas of what will make them popular, attractive, and happy (or the opposite: unpopular, unattractive, and unhappy). How often are characters with larger body types, for example, portrayed in movies in romantic situations compared to thin characters? Kids may compare their own appearances to those of celebrities, models, animated TV characters, or toys -- body shapes that may be unrealistic or just plain unattainable. This kind of comparison can lead to body shame and low body esteem, which can lead to serious behaviours."

The organisation says the media has become "the other parent" in children's lives "powerfully affecting their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development."

Furthermore, they say: "We believe in teaching our kids to be savvy, respectful and responsible media users. We can’t cover their eyes but we can teach them to see."

Jonathan Glazzard, from the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools, has also written about the British Educational Research Association about the various potential problems of online life for young people.

Dr Michael Rich, founder and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital and associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health notes: "As clinicians, we must be attuned to our patients’ family dynamics and their online activities – and understand how these environmental factors influence their psychological and physical health…

"Social media, like television and magazines, are commercially-supported advertising venues. They use time-honored techniques of making people feel inadequate in order to fill the created void with the latest “self-improvement” products and procedures…"

Dr Rich urges clinicians to encourage patients towards "healthy behaviors, understanding that the “thin ideal” is unattainable, unhealthy and unfulfilling.

Love Island

To return to the two questions posed earlier:

Are we creating the right aspirations? Love Island is just a bit of fun, for those who enjoy it, and should be seen as such. If anyone thinks it represents the height of life's ambition there have been massive failures of influence elsewhere.

Are there negative effects from overexposure to beautiful people? There can be but the realistic - and actually fundamental - solution is to help individuals (and young people especially) become robust and engender a healthy self-confidence and self esteem.

The digital age has shrunk the world, and society, and vastly increased our exposure to other people and, as part of that, what are known as unrealistic body images.

But Love Island, and everything like it, is nothing fundamentally new.

The movies, since the very earliest days of cinema, have been massively overpopulated with extremely beautiful people.

Ditto, quite obviously, the modelling industry - and it is not just the nature of that sector that makes the point, but indeed its very existence.

There are huge pitfalls for young people and these negative pressures can compound vulnerabilities.

Indeed, the background of one of the contestants on this year's show provides a salient (and complex) example. Megan Barton-Hanson was apparently so unhappy and/or insecure with the way she looked that she has spent an estimated £25,000 on cosmetic surgery "since the age of 14".

This has been a recurrent story for the tabloids and social media; just this week it was reported that Ms Barton-Hanson was bullied at school and this is why she began having surgery (which the Mirror estimates at costing £40,000).

A series of events with some apparently very dark aspects has been treated as a circus in some quarters (some of the social media comments are available in the link above). This is what can happen in the modern media landscape.

Building resilient and confident people

It is fair to ask that the media culture sands down the edges of its absurdities and its cruelty; it is also fair to encourage people to approach media, of all forms, with the weight it deserves.

Moral panic is rarely fertile ground for solutions. Trying to stop exposure to certain unrealities or unattainables in the age of photoshop and Facebook recalls King Canute. There are downsides to social media, to shows like Love Island, to all sorts of things about the modelling industry - but none of these things are going away.

Instead, we should encourage things like Love Island to be taken less seriously, rather than more (which, I'm sure, is actually the aim of the producers and broadcasters of any light entertainment), and more importantly to make sure everyone is also surrounded by and exposed to positive influences of substance.

Of course, there are a huge number of organisations working on doing just this.

As well as help in crises, the NSPCC itself offers a broad suite of services designed to help young people, as individuals, become better equipped to deal with the world in the age of the internet.

Barnardos, Unicef UK, Action for Children, and many more - there are a number of great organisations in the UK that seek to help children and young people, in various circumstances, improve their own lives.

The Child Mind Institute is another US non-profit that seeks to help children struggling with mental health problems, and their families.

Their work reaches right into the science of brain development - but they also provide practical support for families and, again, this is centred around positive encouragement, and teaching young people to deal with the digital kaleidoscope as well as possible.

None of this means we can't ask for standards from the media we are exposed to, whether this means TV programmes, comments on social media, or advertising images on the side of a bus - "sanity, not censorship," as Common Sense Media puts it.

Nonetheless, media the digital age will only ever be on a very long leash - if not running free - which means preparing young people for dealing with all that entails is vital.

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