Many Americans may not realize that the media influences kids’ body image concerns from a very young age, according to a new brief that provides an overview of the existing research in the field.
Researchers from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that reviews content targeted at kids, say that dozens of studies reveal very young children are increasingly struggling to develop a healthy relationship with their own bodies.
For instance, when kindergarten-age children are asked to indicate their ideal body size, nearly a third of them choose a size that’s smaller than their own. By age six, kids are aware of what “dieting” means and may have tried it. By age ten, 80 percent of American girls say they’ve been on a diet.
“Almost as soon as preschoolers complete the developmental task of mastering a concept of their bodies, they begin to express concerns about their bodies, taking their cues from peers, adults, and media around them,” the Common Sense Media researchers write. “Young children in particular pick up models for how to think and behave from those around them. Body-related talk and behavior is no exception.”
Plus, this issue appears to be getting worse. Between 1999 and 2006, for instance, the number of kids under the age of 12 who needed to be hospitalized for eating disorders increased by nearly 120 percent.
A complex mix of factors contribute to kids’ perceptions of their bodies. The behavior modeled by their parents appears to play a role; in one study of elementary school age children, for example, kids started picking up on their mother’s dissatisfaction with her body before expressing dissatisfaction about their own. Parents can try to avoid passing down negative messages by avoiding “fat talk” and focusing their efforts on emphasizing healthy food instead.
Researchers are also concerned about the unrealistic portrayals of particularly thin bodies in the media, which appear even in products aimed primarily at children. A recent review of 134 episodes of popular Nickelodeon and Disney shows found that a staggering 87 percent of the female characters between the ages of 10 and 17 were underweight. Meanwhile, another study discovered that the overweight characters on those channels were more likely to be portrayed as unattractive and having no friends.
Even kids’ cartoon characters can’t always escape the pressure to conform to unrealistic ideals of thinness. Disney has been criticized for slimming down its popular characters like Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck, while the body proportions of its princesses have frequently been called into question. Executives continue to employ this marketing strategy even though there’s no clear evidence that children prefer skinny cartoons.
Ultimately, according to the Common Sense Media researchers, it’s important to take stock of children’s current influences because we know that body image is linked to key aspects of social and emotional wellbeing. When children are dissatisfied with their bodies, they’re more likely to struggle with low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders. And disordered eating, which plagues an estimated 30 million Americans, is the most fatal mental health issue in the country — one out of every five people with anorexia eventually dies from causes related to the disease.
Along with its new report, the organization has tips for parents who want to get better at talking to their children about cultivating a healthy body image.