Social media’s life partner is the smartphone. As Mark Rabkin, VP of Core Adverts at Facebook noted recently, “every person has a screen, on their person, at all times […] Phone in hand, they’re scrolling through feeds and moving between other apps and sites.” These screens are used frequently to access social media and, according to a recent survey by Young Minds, 28% of young people spend more than four hours per day on social media. This is clearly a dream scenario for marketers and advertisers who purvey goods, services, images, and messages. But what are golden opportunities for companies might be pernicious influences for young people.

These influences have been explored by a recent flurry of reports that have conveyed a message that is consistent and strong: young people’s use of social media raises concerns for their wellbeing and body image perceptions.

Such concerns are borne out by results from a survey of over 1,000 young people by Young Minds, 40% of whom thought social media has a negative impact on how they feel about themselves. Relatedly, a report from the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) asked nearly 1,500 young people about 14 measures of health and wellbeing, including body image. The RSPH found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the social media provider which affected body image most negatively was Instagram. One of its respondents observed: “Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look ‘perfect’.” This chimed with comments from a young person who contributed to our cosmetic procedures project, who told us, “You don’t put a bad photo on Instagram”, and with responses to a survey by anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label: “I wouldn’t ever upload a photo without editing it first”; and “I use apps to change how my body looks before uploading”.

Policy research provides further illumination: a report commissioned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for its recent publication on gender stereotyping highlighted individuals “feeling pressurized to make changes to their body based on societal pressure to conform to the perfect body depicted in advertising and across other platforms”. One research participant observed: “I’ve got a friend in her 20s and she is already having lip fillers because of the pressure on social media”.

Despite this, the ASA’s own publication states that its “decisions relating to body image… are broadly in the right place.” So, as the advertising regulator seems reluctant to consider changing its approach to body image advertising, it is even more important that social media providers step up to the plate. And we should note that it isn’t just dusty policy-makers and ethicists who are calling for action on social media’s influence on young people’s wellbeing: in the Young Minds survey, 82% of respondents felt that social media companies should do more to promote good mental health among their users.

Of course, social media can have positive effects in some areas: Girlguiding’s Girls’ attitudes survey, published in August, found that though many girls have negative experiences online, “which can lead them to feeling silenced in voicing their views, almost all say social media empowers them to speak out.” Similarly, Young Minds’ survey participants felt positively about social media, with 60% saying it had a positive effect on their relationships with friends.

Young people I talked to when researching our cosmetic procedures report also showed a palpable enthusiasm for social media. They were excited to tell me how they use different platforms, and they clearly got a buzz from using it. But we must find out if the price of that buzz is too high, and the only way we can do that is through research.

A paper published last year by researchers at the University of the West of England and Flinders University in Australia highlighted that, so far, research on the relationship between body image and social media use is mainly correlational rather than causative. Similarly, Girlguiding’s Girls’ attitudes survey found that low body confidence stops a quarter of 11-16-year-old girls from using social media, which raises the question of whether social media causes low body confidence. For us to know this for sure, causative research needs to be undertaken to find out how social media may, or may not, lead to appearance anxiety.

We believe social media companies have a responsibility to fund this research through an independent programme of work so that we can really get to grips with how social media contributes to appearance anxiety in young people.

Social media companies have the capacity to address these concerns, but seem to be looking in the opposite direction at present. Earlier this year, for example, leaked documents reported how “Facebook showed advertisers how it has the capacity to identify when teenagers feel “insecure”, “worthless” and “need a confidence boost””. Facebook is also clearly willing to undertake surveys which consider issues similar to those carried out by advocacy organisations, but perhaps with an eye on the opportunities for marketing rather than social wellbeing. The company also recently carried out research on gender stereotyping in ads posted on its site, and found that “women were almost twice as likely to say they wanted to watch a related movie trailer when they saw an image they felt projected female empowerment versus female sex appeal”, and that therefore “ads that defy gender stereotypes and empower women aren’t just good for society. They’re good for business.”

Social media companies have also launched body-positive campaigns such as #beyourself – which feels like a sop rather than a genuine commitment to finding out why we have found ourselves in a position where young people need these body positive messages to be promoted on social media. They have also shown that they are able to work together on issues of concern, as evidenced by recent collaborations over counter-terrorism initiatives. But before taking a step towards action, social media companies need to know what they’re dealing with; that is, they need to know more about the effect that social media use has on young people.

The only way of finding this out is through research and, at present, there is precious little of that around. There has to be an appetite for this type of inquiry, and it seems at the moment that social media companies just aren’t hungry.

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