How to help young people limit screen time — and feel better about how they look
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
It's not uncommon for teens and college-age people to spend two to three hours a day on platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. What's surprising is how many are willing to cut back and what happens when they do. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: There are not too many college students who are able to turn their thesis project into a randomized, controlled trial published in a peer-reviewed journal. But for Helen Thai, her focus on how social media can influence body image and appearance came at just the right time. Her hunch was that many people were being negatively influenced by social media. That's what she experienced personally.
HELEN THAI: What I noticed when I was engaging in social media was that I couldn't help but compare myself, whether it be posts from celebrities or people within my social network. They looked prettier, healthier, more fit.
AUBREY: That led to feelings of inferiority. Now a doctoral student in psychology, she wanted to determine if others felt this, too. So she and her collaborators recruited a couple of hundred volunteers, aged 17 to 25, all of whom had experienced anxiety, who were in the habit of using social media - about two to three hours each day. The volunteers were divided into two groups. The first group agreed to slash their time on social media.
THAI: We asked them to reduce their social media to 60 minutes a day for three weeks.
AUBREY: The other group continued to use social media with no restrictions. All of the participants agreed to share their smartphone's daily screen time tracker so researchers could keep tabs. And they also agreed to take surveys that asked a bunch of questions about body image and appearance.
THAI: So an example would be a statement like, I wish I looked better, or, I'm looking as nice as I'd like to, or, I'm pretty happy about the way I look.
AUBREY: The survey was given at the beginning of the study and again after just three weeks of limiting social media. Thai says, in such a short period, she actually documented a change.
THAI: What our study showed was that participants who were asked to reduce their daily social media use significantly improved in appearance and weight esteem.
AUBREY: It's not that their weight or appearance changed, but how they felt about their looks and their bodies did change - for the better. It's not a surprise, says Lexie Kite, a body image expert and co-director of the nonprofit Beauty Redefined. She says what's so anxiety provoking is that social media platforms are full of body-centric images, and people can alter or airbrush the way they look.
LEXIE KITE: You can use filters that come up on TikTok very easily to add makeup, curves, a tan, slim yourself down, take away all pores, wrinkles, hair.
AUBREY: Scrolling this kind of content can have a powerful influence on teens and especially young women at a vulnerable time when they're trying to figure out who they are, what they stand for and what gives them power.
KITE: So Instagram and TikTok take the harmful cultural messages we've all grown up with, primarily that women are most valued for their beauty and sex appeal, and not only reinforces those messages, but magnifies them to a level that cements those value systems into their brains. And, you know, kids can't escape it.
AUBREY: Especially if all their peers are using social media. Lexie Kite says cutting back makes a lot of sense. And another strategy is to minimize body-centric content in your feed.
KITE: Be incredibly mindful as you scroll of how each creator, each image, each account makes you feel.
AUBREY: If a post makes you feel uncomfortable or less than, make a choice to mute or unfollow.
KITE: You are the only one who can curate your feed, and the platforms surely won't. They are pushing - the algorithm is pushing body-centric and idealized content to you because that's what sells.
AUBREY: So try to zero in on alternative content from users who share things that align with your values and interests. Kite says, if you explore, there's a lot of positive content to engage with.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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