“I have been using social media since I was ten,” says Labella. “Now I’m just so accustomed to how you are supposed to look and act.”
Labella is 16. Like the other girls in her class, she feels self-conscious about her skin, her body and whether or not her arms look good in photographs. Also like the rest of the girls in her class, she is addicted to TikTok and Instagram – and it’s probably impacting her mental health.
In January the Education Policy Institute (EPI) released a report that had been a year in the making. The research investigated the general well-being of today’s teenagers and explored the factors that most significantly affected an adolescent’s happiness. It concluded that there is an obvious gender divide in the well-being of young adults.
“Heavy social media use is linked to worse well-being and for girls and adolescents specifically,” says Whitney Crenna-Jennings, the author of the EPI research. “Girls experience more depressive symptoms than boys, such as feeling worthless or hopeless, while they are also more likely to feel unhappy about their physical appearance.”
The proportion of girls that feel unhappy about the way they look rises considerably between age 11 and 14, from one in seven to around one in three. And while all teenagers experience a decline in general well-being during the transition from childhood, teenage girls report the lowest levels of happiness and self-esteem.
One of the several causes the report identifies is social media use. Teenage girls have always had a tendency to fret about their looks, but for girls that have grown up with Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, pictures and videos are at the centre of their social lives, turning personal image into a daily obsession.
Spend more than ten minutes consuming the type of social media teenage girls absorb and you would probably understand. Every time Nina, 16, goes to make a video on TikTok, the app alters her face: “The camera puts a ‘beautifyer’ on you and it blurs your skin and makes your eyes look a certain way. It just completely changes the way you see yourself because you put the filter on and you think, oh, I look like the Instagram girls. I’m so pretty. Then when you look in the mirror, that’s obviously not what you’re gonna see. It’s so discouraging,” says Nina. “It’s, like, well, is my skin not beautiful? Is it not normal to look like this?”
The headphones waist challenge recently went viral in China and has since surfaced on Instagram in the UK; the trend encourages girls to wrap their earphones around their waist to show off how slim they are. On TikTok, another viral trend – now a few months old – encourages users to show off how symmetrical (or otherwise) their face is with the app’s symmetry filter. Similarly, the side profile trend demands users film how straight their noses are, while a “chubby face” filter lets girls mimic having a fuller face.
Filters are just the beginning. TikTok is particularly unique in that new viral trends pop up constantly, thanks to the way the app’s algorithm is designed. The pressure is on for girls to keep up with trends that change almost weekly on the app. “I feel like comparison is a big thing,” says Nina, “but trends are an even bigger thing. It can be overwhelming.”
The TikTok and Instagram algorithms track their users and are highly sensitive; as soon as you engage with one video on a certain topic, similar videos come flooding in. Labella is bombarded by diet-related content. “Sometimes I’ll just scroll and see a pro-anorexia page or pro-bulimia page out of nowhere.”
Workout videos dominate social media. Impossibly toned women give their tips on how to get the perfect bum; how to get rid of “hip dips” (the natural curve found below the hips and above the thigh) and how to look as slim as possible. They are exhausting to watch. “I was on Instagram and I was scrolling on this fitness page, and it caught me for a while,” says Tovah, 16. “I kept looking at myself and thinking like, if I had listened to the page, would I look better? Would this make me feel better as a person?”
Nancy, 13, has been using social media since she was 11 years old. “Sometimes I compare myself to older girls but then I think I am 13 and I’ll get more confident,” she says. “I sometimes think my body or face isn’t as nice as theirs but then I think I’m OK.” But still, Nancy sometimes feels like she needs a rest from the constant comparisons encouraged on these platforms: “Sometimes I have breaks from it to work on confidence so I think it would make me happier without it.”
According to the EPI report, boys and girls have a different relationship to Instagram and TikTok. Boys tend to see social media comparisons as aspirational. But for girls aged 11-17, it has the opposite effect, slowly eating away at their self-confidence.
“I think it doesn’t necessarily affect you straight away,” says Luisa, 16. “It’s more of a long process where you think that maybe you’re OK with it. But then maybe people start pointing things out about you, or just you see other people and you think that you don’t look like them. So over time, you start to think less of yourself,” she says. “I really miss being able to, like, do what I want and not care what other people think.”
For Luisa, the constant pressure of being seen by her peers is taking its toll. “I have been around social media since I was born,” she says. “But I started using it myself when I was ten. That’s a lot of time to be surrounded by other people’s opinions.”
Today’s generation of teenage girls are unique in their complete social media immersion. As a result, no other demographic can quite relate to the obsessive and meticulous attention their online personal image demands. But while their parents may not fully understand the extent of the issue, they cannot afford to dismiss it.
Molly Forbes is a campaigner and the author of Body Happy Kids, a book examining how we can improve the body image of children. For years she has been working to improve the confidence of teenagers. “We need to look at the wider culture that body shaming and appearance-based bullying online is part of,” she says. “To me, these behaviours point to a wider issue about how we teach children and teenagers to value appearance, not just online, but also in homes and in schools as well.”
“We can also be really engaged with what our kids are doing when they’re online,” she adds. “This might mean being more aware of who your kids are following when they’re online and maybe even following some of the same people so you can see what types of messages your children are being exposed to regularly.”
Social media is not going away, and neither is the all-encompassing influence it will continue to have on our lives. But the longer we ignore this problem, the easier it will be for this generation’s insecurities to become normalised – and the risk that as these girls grow up, their battered sense of self-esteem will mature with them.