A Parent's Take: Social Media and Body Image Research
What if middle school girls would just say “I don’t need people to tell me I’m pretty on social media” …
They do. At Orchard House School. And we have the study to prove it.
As parents of middle school girls, we have all shared with one another our fears and frustrations that have been thrust upon us in this age of social media. We have all seen the selfies, the “shares” and “likes” and “posts,” that include not-so-subtle messages, both in words and pictures, that a girl’s appearance matters. Who hasn’t worried that the onslaught of social media messaging on our girls would contribute to self-esteem issues, including issues of body dissatisfaction?
Despite what seems at times like an insurmountable - and frustrating - social media culture, Orchard House families can be very encouraged by a study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Psychology. At the risk of giving away the punchline here, the study confirms that the Orchard House school mission is working.
In 2016, Blair Burnette, Melissa Kwitowski, and Suzanne Mazzeo, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University, initiated a study of Orchard House 7th and 8th grade girls to examine the nature and extent of early adolescent females’ engagement with social media and their perceptions of its impact on body image. The study is a fascinating read and is highly recommended. But the short abstract sums it up beautifully:
In this sample, social media use was high. Girls endorsed some appearance concerns and social comparison, particularly with peers. However, they displayed high media literacy, appreciation of differences, and confidence, strategies that appeared helpful in mitigating the potential negative association between social media exposure and body image. Girls reported these characteristics were nurtured by positive parental influence and a supportive school environment. Results support an ecological approach to the prevention of body dissatisfaction. Although peer influence strengthens throughout adolescence, current findings suggest that parents and the school environment are associated with girls’ attitudes and behaviors regarding social media and body image.
Many parents will be relieved to know that most girls who participated in the study did not endorse frequent selfie postings. Most of the participants acknowledged some form of parental monitoring of social media use. And while nosy parents were not universally “welcomed,” the study reflects that parental monitoring does have an impact on the girls’ decisions with respect to social media use.
And then there is the incredibly positive impact of the Orchard House environment. In describing how they girls acquired values that help them buffer the effects of appearance based influences, the girls mentioned media literacy, acceptance, appreciating differences, and confidence. They attributed much of these values to the learning environment at Orchard House.
“At this school, they teach us how to like yourself.”
“This is. . .a really inclusive school and it teaches you how you shouldn’t care how other people think of how you look . . .”
“Our teachers in health class, like all the umm teachers help us with confidence [and] teach us to build a really thick wall so that this stuff do[es] not get to you and I guess you are more immune to it because you know you are fine and so does your class, too.”
Student interviews revealed widespread interest in Mirror Mirror, Orchard House’s club that meets once a week to discuss body image, as well as media literacy in terms of body image and body diversity. While Mirror Mirror is a voluntary activity, it is popular among the students, who use the discussion group to gather “tools to combat the potential detrimental effects of social media exposure.”
The researchers presented the findings at a parent meeting on November 30. In that meeting, the researchers indicated that the findings were somewhat of a surprise given the prevalence of social media and the body image messaging to which adolescent girls are exposed. The research concluded:
Although mass media exposure is linked to body dissatisfaction, it is critical to examine the specific influence of social media on young adolescent populations to enhance prevention and intervention efforts. Results of the current study suggest that both parental involvement and school environment play crucial roles in the relation between social media exposure and appearance concerns. The perspectives gained from this study have important implications for future prevention research. (emphasis added).
How perfect a validation of the Orchard House School mission, which is to educate and inspire girls in a responsive, academically engaging community that fosters each girl’s intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, emotional integrity and physical well-being.
- Orchard House School Parent