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Canada Amplify: Equipping teens with digital literacy in the social media age is more important than ever

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Amplify: Instagram is a place to post highly stylized, cropped and digitally filtered pictures that look nothing like real life, but flatter their best features.

The Globe and Mail

My Instagram feed is dominated by photos of unfolding world events and a lot of baked goods – typical stuff for a news reporter slash amateur baker.

Recently, my 14-year-old niece joined the ranks of Instagram, giving me a small window into the way adolescents use social media to shape how the world sees them. Often, this means group photos and, at times, drama over the strategic use of “tagging” to rank a user’s friend hierarchy.

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But take a deeper look, and you notice something more insidious at play. For many, Instagram is a place to post highly stylized, cropped and digitally filtered pictures that look nothing like real life, but flatter their best features. In the context of teenagers, I often wonder about the potentially damaging effects of social media on their body image.

I’m Carly Weeks, a national health reporter with The Globe and Mail, a role that has made me much more aware of how aspects of our daily lives, such as exposure to social media, can affect our health.

Body image problems, which typically first appear during adolescence, are not new. But social media has added a new dimension to the issue. We are no longer just bombarded with advertising images of gorgeous, digitally-enhanced people. We are now encouraged to post our own flattering photos, and can’t help but compare ourselves to other people in our news feed.

I have recently heard the heartbreaking stories of two teen girls connected to people in my social circle who have been hospitalized for eating disorders. According to those friends, the hospitals treating them are often at capacity and there aren’t nearly enough resources to help young people struggling with these challenges.

Disordered eating is a mental illness with many causes, but I wonder about the role social media plays in how young, impressionable people see themselves. Friends and I have discussed the potential role of social media and the pressure young people – girls and young women, in particular – face to post the best photos to capture the most likes. (On that note, kudos to Instagram on its current experiment hiding those likes.)

Simply telling these kids to get off social media isn’t really an option. It’s where their friends are and the desire to fit in with a peer group during adolescence is an important developmental milestone that shouldn’t be ignored.

But, while the research is in its infancy, several studies have linked greater usage of social media to a poorer overall body image in boys and girls. One study, published last year, found that girls who posted photos to social media platforms on a frequent basis tended to be unhappy with their own body image. The findings are troubling, and suggest this is a widespread problem that needs more attention.

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Australian researchers published a study in 2017 of 18- to 25-year-old women that found the more time they spent on Instagram, the worse they felt about themselves. Body image concerns were the highest among women who followed a lot of “fitspiration” accounts, which feature photos of people who are toned and fit (and usually unrealistically thin).

If adults feel bad about themselves after looking at a staged photo of a model on social media, imagine the effects on a young person. Most teens don’t have the media literacy skills to critically appraise the images they see on their phones. And unlike previous generations, now they and their friends can try to emulate the attractive, stylized photos posted by celebrities and social media influencers, creating the perfect conditions for a vicious cycle of body image doubt and shaming.

And while there is no direct link between social media and eating disorders, it could be a matter of time before that connection is proven. A 2016 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found those who used social media the most were more likely to suffer from “eating concerns.” The study, which included young adults aged 19 to 32, said eating concerns are more common than eating disorders, but are often a precursor to diagnosable eating disorders. “Eating concerns” could include a range of behaviour, such as people who say food dominates their life or that their weight has a negative impact on how they feel about themselves.

I’m glad my niece navigates social media responsibly and is open to conversations about the artificial nature of what she sees online and how to discern truth from advertising. I’m also glad my brother has strict policies in place around what she can and can’t do online.

Today’s teens are often referred to as the first generation to grow up with no knowledge of an internet-less existence. So we need to be the generation that equips them with the right tools to navigate the complicated online world they live in.

What else we’re reading:

Misinformation – and the movement to speak out against unscientific, false and misleading therapies and views – is having a moment. This is due in large part to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles, that have many parents and experts openly criticizing antivaccination advocates who spread false information. One person who has come under scrutiny is Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who recorded a podcast with an antivaccination advocate earlier this year.

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This article from the New York Times explores Mr. Dorsey’s rise as a wellness influencer for young men, which has earned him comparisons to Gwyneth Paltrow. Like Paltrow, Dorsey is facing criticism for promoting treatments that aren’t based in any solid evidence.

Inspired by something in this newsletter? If so, we hope you’ll amplify it by passing it on. And if there’s something we should know, or feedback you’d like to share, send us an e-mail at amplify@globeandmail.com.

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