New study by Saferinternet.atBeauty ideals on the Internet

On the occasion of the international Safer Internet Day on February 6, 2024, Saferinternet.at presented the results of a new youth study on the topic of "Beauty ideals on the Internet". The study examines the effects of digital media use on young people's body-related self-image. The results show that the pressure on young people to conform to unrealistic body images is high. At the same time, the important role of parents and other caregivers in dealing with beauty ideals becomes clear.

Idealized body images on the Internet and in social networks

Young people feel under great pressure from the omnipresent idealized body images in the digital space: More than half of the young people surveyed in the study would like to change something about their appearance, and more than a quarter have already considered cosmetic surgery. Social media and in particular influencers are said to have a major influence on self-perception. However, young people also see opportunities to escape this influence - at least in theory.

Digital imagery increases pressure on young people

The pressure that such ideal images exert on young people is nothing new: the media and personal environment have always had a particularly strong influence on how young people perceive their bodies. In a phase of life in which one's own identity is not yet firmly established and feelings of self-worth are often weak, unrealistic expectations of appearance can be a major burden. Currently, not only edited images are flooding the internet, but also photos of young people produced by artificial intelligence .

Good looks are important for girls and boys

Around 70% of the young people surveyed are at least "fairly satisfied" with their appearance. Nevertheless, more than half (51%) would like to change something about their body, with the figure rising to 60% for girls.

However, their own appearance is of great importance to both genders - both offline and online. For example, 61% of all respondents post photos or videos in which they can be seen and attach great importance to their appearance. It is particularly important to them to look beautiful (68%), stylish (64%) and slim (54%). Looking sexy is important to 34 percent, with boys (40%) placing significantly more value on this than girls (27%). This shows that, contrary to popular belief, the focus on one's own appearance is no longer just a girls' issue. To look as good as possible, young people use light, poses and/or cell phone angles (54%) and edit photos and videos, for example with filters (41%).

Social networks and influencers have a major influence on self-perception

Social networks have an impact on self-perception and influence whether you think you are beautiful or not - this is the opinion of two thirds of young people (65%). Girls in particular (76%) and respondents aged 15 and over (78%) agree with this statement.

Comparisons with others play a major role - and young people are particularly exposed to these on the Internet. Almost three quarters (71%) of young people confirm that the images they consume on social networks lead them to compare themselves with other people. Over a quarter (27%) emphasize the negative consequences and state that they feel bad after scrolling through the various social media feeds. Influencers from the beauty and fitness sectors in particular have an influence on children and young people, according to three quarters of respondents (74%). Around half (53%) state that they have already changed something about their own appearance based on corresponding images. Just as many young people have already bought products recommended by influencers. 28% have even considered cosmetic surgery.

Insults about appearance are also commonplace online

Young people not only have to contend with unrealistic beauty ideals on the internet, they also have to fear being subjected to insults about their appearance. 74% have already experienced such a situation. Girls in particular (84%) report experiencing derogatory comments on the internet and in social networks. Perhaps this is why avatars are playing an increasingly important role in the digital world. After all, almost a third (30%) say that such an avatar should look as good as possible.

Strategies against the beauty craze: reality check, social media breaks and mutual support

Young people name various strategies to avoid being negatively influenced by beauty ideals on the internet. These include dealing with self-perception: working on self-acceptance (67%), actively trying not to be put under pressure (60%) and questioning why the content they consume stresses them out or creates pressure (55%) are seen as helpful. Another option mentioned by the young people in the focus groups was a "reality check" - in other words, "going out and seeing what people are really like". This would make them aware of the discrepancy between the distorted online portrayal of people and their actual appearance.

Another strategy cited by the young people is a conscious approach to social networks. Above all, this includes spending less time on social networks (63%), taking social media breaks (60%) and specifically following influencers or content that is good for you (60%).

Mutual support is also seen as relevant: Constantly complimenting each other on their appearance among friends is something 59% find helpful, while 38% advocate making fun of stressful content together and laughing about it.

Even if young people are aware of these strategies, it is sometimes difficult for them to put them into practice. For example, while 63% of young people in the survey stated that spending less time on social networks would be a good approach, the focus groups showed that they often find it difficult to escape the pull of online content.

Learning to deal critically with beauty ideals - parents are particularly challenged

In order to support young people in dealing critically with beauty ideals on the internet and in developing a healthy body-related self-image, it is not only teachers and online platforms that are called upon, but above all parents. 57 percent of respondents are of this opinion.

However, parents often do not have sufficient media skills themselves. In the opinion of young people, they also need support so that they can help their children to use media competently. Schools have a key role to play in reaching parents and offering them educational material. At the same time, 47 percent also see schools as an important place to address young people directly. Young people see many opportunities to address the issue of beauty ideals in the classroom. Encouraging a critical examination of the topic and promoting young people's media skills is therefore a crucial task for teachers.

However, platform operators are also called upon to create as diverse a range of services as possible for users.  However, the young people also see potential for improvement here: 63% of the young people surveyed would like edited images to be labeled.

About the study

The study "Beauty Ideals on the Internet" was conducted by the Institute for Youth Culture Research and Cultural Mediation on behalf of the Austrian Institute for Applied Telecommunications(ÖIAT) and ISPA - Internet Service Providers Austria as part of the EU Saferinternet.at initiative. During the survey period (December 2023), 400 young people between the ages of 11 and 17 took part, representative according to age, gender and educational background. In addition, four focus group discussions were conducted with a total of 56 young people aged between 13 and 19.

Source: Saferinternet.at |Saferinternet.at is our Austrian partner initiative in the EU Safer Internet Network(Insafe).  

Information, links and tips on how to deal with beauty filters on social media can be found in the klicksafe news article "Does bold glamor put young people under pressure?"