The Health of Your Teen is Instagram’s Latest Target

The Health of Your Teen is Instagram’s Latest Target
By Natalie Doppelt

Instagram has become Gen Z’s latest drug—addictive and harmful, it is now a prevalent component of American youth’s daily life. As a means of communication, this social media outlet has become a digital representation of the teenage life, an embodiment of the identity teens wish the world could see. This mindset becomes toxic as the need to portray a certain identity—one encouraged by online figures— becomes overbearing. Therefore, parents should be aware of the effects of Instagram fitness influencers’ selfies on the self-identification of their teenagers.

Instagram usage has skyrocketed among people ages 13 to 17. A survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago indicates that about 76% of teenagers actively use Instagram. This overwhelming majority is among a population that is constantly receiving and producing social media content.

Among this content is the realm of social media fitness. Many Instagram “influencers,” or accounts with a large and active following, promote fitness. Their posts include workout routines, meal plans, and a large number of body-centric selfies.

Images posted by these influencers often set unrealistic body expectations for their followers that lead to unhealthy behaviors. As public figures, these Instagram influencers serve as models for “average.” Teenagers feel that they should look like these Instagrammers because they portray a seemingly average lifestyle. Images of celebrities become a standard for how the average person should look, even if the means in which they achieved that look are not standard.

For example, many teenagers develop eating disorders or other unhealthy eating habits to obtain the ideal body type portrayed through media. Kayla Itsines, one of Instagram’s top fitness influencers, is known for her health tips and toned figure. However, her advice is medically unsound and often unhealthy. She recommends coffee as a substitute for water, even though coffee is a diuretic. These so-called tips from her and other influencers could eventually damage a teenager’s health.

The behaviors of influencers are driven by personal financial goals, not the well-being of their following. Most of their unhealthy posts are endorsements for a product that sponsors their content.  For example, teenagers have flocked towards the infamous waist trainers endorsed by the Kardashian family over Instagram and their television series, even though studies have shown the extent of damage the product does to an individual’s organs. The Kardashians continue to promote this product, despite recognizing how it may hurt their fans as they are paid for every post that endorses the product. Some may argue that the endorsers are to blame for this recent identity crisis as they are the people promoting the unhealthy habits. However, the influencers choose what they display for their followers and are therefore responsible for the health consequences.

Individuals also enter a depressive state when engaging with this content. For example, a study conducted by University of New South Wales and Macquarie University surveyed 350 women on their social media usage. They found that women felt worse about their own bodies the longer they looked at the pictures of celebrity fitness influencers. Looking at “standard” body-types online, people often feel inadequate and undesirable. The relationship between the influencer and the follower is a game of compare and contrast, a game where the follower will always lose. While teenagers may be looking at Instagram content to see the latest trends, they may be damaging their psyche in the process.

Parents must be wary of how the overbearing influence of Instagram could be causing their teenager to question their own identity. Instagram influencers have the power to set health standards for the entire youth population. However, parents have the ability to encourage healthy habits. While influencers can attack teens through their screens, parents have the ability to engage in first-hand communication that can preempt any possible identity crises. The “digital identity” is destructive; it creates a barrier between what the world sees and what the teenager feels. Even though the growth of social media appears to be a nation-wide health epidemic, parents must recognize that their children can be saved through education and conversation.