The Daily Mail is reporting on research conducted by Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that studies media content targeted at children. The latest study has found that one out of four children say they dieted prior to turning seven years-old. Another 80 percent of American girls aged 10 years admit that they had dieted due to fears about their looks while a majority of girls ages six to eight - and a surprising one-third of boys - said they wished their bodies were thinner.
Even more concerning is the fact that between 1999 and 2006, hospitalizations for eating disorders among children below the age of 12 increased by a startling 119 percent with almost 1.3 million adolescent girls in the U.S. estimated to be suffering from anorexia.
What is causing this worrying trend? The most obvious culprit is the media.
“Traditional mainstream media (television, movies, music, magazines, advertising) contain unrealistic, idealized, sexualized, and stereotypical portrayals of body types. Media messages about girls/women commonly emphasize the value of being young and beautiful — and, especially, thin,” the report states.
For instance, just this weekend another beauty pageant was held - Miss Universe – where women were presented to the public and judged according to how perfect they looked and acted. To show how unrealistic these body images have become over the years, researchers found that the average body mass index (BMI) of Miss America winners has decreased from around 22 in the 1920s to 16.9 in the 2000s.
In addition, female characters on TV and in films who have heavier body types are usually presented negatively and tend to be older and less likely to be included in romantic situations than thin characters. In one study reviewed by researchers, of the nearly 12,000 speaking characters in top-grossing family films and featured in prime-time or children’s TV shows, females are far more likely to be shown wearing sexy attire, to be thin, and to be referred to as physically attractive or desirous.
But it's not just the way girls are present on TV and in the movies. Magazines are also major purveyors of unrealistic body images that put pressure on girls to be thinner than what is considered healthy.
“In a national survey of girls age 13 to 17 by the Girl Scouts Research Institute (2010), nearly half (48%) wished they were as skinny as the models they saw in fashion magazines and said fashion magazines gave them a body image to strive for (47%),” the report found. “Another survey by the Today Show and AOL.com (2014) found that 80 percent of teen girls compare themselves to images they see of celebrities, and, within that group, almost half say the images make them feel dissatisfied with the way they look.”
However, exposure to traditional media is only one risk factor for developing body dissatisfaction. Social media is another culprit. Because three quarters of adolescent girls say they have a social media profile, presenting their self-image on social media sites may be shaping teens’ self-esteem – both positively and negatively – although more study is needed in this area.
Interestingly, a surprising 74 percent of girls say “most girls my age use social networking sites to make themselves look cooler than they really are” with 41 percent admitting they do this too. This focus on appearance may be signaling a form of self-objectification indicating that girls are already being socialized into an “appearance culture.”
Other factors contributing to this alarming trend are “psychological characteristics such as self-esteem, the feeling of a lack of control, depression, anxiety, and troubled interpersonal relationships also have been linked to body-related perceptions and behaviors, especially among children and teens who go on to have eating disorders,” the report found.
Family environment is another important factor. “Parents are key to children’s healthy development, and body image is no exception. For instance, girls whose fathers tended to express concern about the girls’ weights judged themselves to be less physically able than those whose fathers didn’t,” the report stated.
Studies have also found that a child’s perception of his or her mother’s body dissatisfaction predicts their own body dissatisfaction and impacts children as young as five.
So what can be done about it? The study encourages parents to listen to children to determine if they are engaging in negative talk about their bodies, or if they exhibit signs of dramatic weight loss or gain. It’s also important for parents to understand that body image is developed in early childhood, and even very young children exhibit body dissatisfaction, the report states.
“Really young children begin to develop body image alongside the growth of their physical, cognitive, and social abilities; even infants have a general sense of their bodies,” researchers write.
For instance, by the age of six, children are aware of dieting and may have tried it and their research found that 26 percent of five year-olds were able to recommend that people who want to lose weight should avoid junk food and eat less.
The report concludes with a call for much more research in this area. Click here to read more.
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