Media, Body Image, and Kids: Why Parents Need to Watch What Kids See

How to help your child build a positive body image and filter media messages

Watching TV with your kids is a great way to help them build a healthy body image. Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Did you know that many young school age kids believe that the ideal body size is one that's skinnier than their own? And that kids as young as preschool age know that people are judged by their appearances? These are just some of the worrisome findings in a new report by Common Sense Media, a national organization led by concerned parents and individuals with experience in child advocacy, public policy, education, media and entertainment that works to provide ratings and reviews of media (movies, TV shows, books, video games, and more) and educate and advocate for families, kids and schools.

This new report, entitled Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image, reviews and examines dozens of previous research on the role of media and technology in the development of kids' and teens' body image. A healthy body image is important for kids' self-esteem and development and according to Common Sense Media, TV, movies, magazines, and other media, (as well as parents, peers, and society at large) can play a powerful role in shaping kids' attitudes and behaviors related to body image starting at a very young age. Some noteworthy findings from the Common Sense Media report:

  • Body image issues can begin when kids are very young. Kids as young as 5 express dissatisfaction with their bodies. And in one study featured in the report, over half of girls and one-third of boys aged 6 to 8 years old chose an ideal body size thinner than their current one.
  • As many as 48 percent of teen girls "wish they were as skinny as the models in fashion magazines"; 60 percent compare themselves to models' bodies, and 31 percent "admit to starving themselves or refusing to eat as a strategy to lose weight," according to research from the Girl Scouts Research Institute.
  • Kids ages 5 to 8 who think their mothers are dissatisfied with their bodies are more likely to be unhappy with their own bodies.
  • The body proportions of "idealized" and "model" figures--such as beauty contest winners, celebrities, movie/TV heroines & heroes, dolls & action figures, and fashion models--are predominantly highly unrealistic and stereotyped , according to several studies.
  • As many as 87 percent of female TV characters between the ages of 10 and 17 are below average in weight.
  • Many male toy action figures have measurements that exceed those of even the biggest body builders.

What Parents Can Do to Build a Healthy Body Image in Kids

The most important thing you can do to counter the effects of these messages and help your child build a positive body image is to shield your kids by filtering what they see and by talking about it. As much as you may be tempted sometimes by the idea of putting your kids in a bubble to protect them, the reality is that there's little you can do to prevent them from seeing and hearing the pervasive messages about body image that are all around them. But the good news is that parents can influence how much the messages in media affect kids, and how skilled kids can become at learning how to see the truth in advertising or entertainment. Here are some ways we can teach kids to be savvy consumers of media and to be confident and happy with their bodies:

  • Watch shows and movies with your child, and read about what she's watching on her own. Be sure to screen what your child will be exposed to, whether it's a movie, a TV show, a You Tube video, or even a magazine. Set firm rules about what they can and cannot see when they're not with you, and preview or at least read about what they are going to view. This is important not only to screen out inappropriate or violent content, but also to make sure that kids aren't going to be constantly exposed to messages that, say, promote the idea that only very thin girls are beautiful or physical beauty is only defined in a certain way and is more important than anything else in a person.
  • Edit out the commercials. If your child wants to watch a favorite show, try recording it ahead of time and skipping through the commercials. If you're watching a program live, mute the sound when the ads come on. This way, you minimize the effect of any messages--relating to body image and materialism, and whatever else is part of what the ads convey--in these extremely powerful, well-planned and expensively-produced advertisements that are difficult for even adults to not be influence by.
  • Give your kids the tools to decipher messages on their own. Ask them to think about what it means when they see a movie in which, say, "popular" kids are depicted as muscle-bound football players or thin cheerleaders in skimpy outfits or someone who is a bad or evil character is depicted as being "unattractive." Get them in the habit of asking questions about stereotypes about gender and body types and diversity. Then encourage them to think about examples in real life or in books, movies, or TV shows in which appearances are not what defines people.
  • Get to know your child's friends. Are your child's friends into sports or physical activities? Do they focus on the value of someone's talents and abilities or do they seem more concerned with physical appearances and clothes? What do they value, and what movies, shows, and websites do they have access to?
  • Emphasize the importance of being healthy, rather than being thin. Healthy eating, fitness and physical activity, and being active together as a family (such as by going on bike rides, walks, or just kicking around a soccer ball or throwing a Frisbee together while you have a picnic in the park). Even if you have a little couch potato who doesn't like exercise, there are fun ways you can get fit together.
  • Do not make negative comments about your own body. You may not realize just how much your kids are watching and hearing what you say about your own appearance. If you constantly talk about your body in a negative way or call yourself "fat," your kids will be more likely to carry these habits into their own lives and be unhappy with their own bodies. Instead of talking about how you look, set a good example for your child by taking action and finding ways to sneak in exercise into your busy schedule.

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