Teenagers march on Facebook HQ in protest at impact on body image

Teenagers march on Facebook HQ in protest at impact on body image

Uplift Ireland campaigner and actor Hazel Blake, from Blackrock, outside the offices of Facebook in Dublin ahead of a march to the Dail calling for the Government to introduce stronger rules on social media corporations. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Irish teenagers are calling on Facebook and the Government to "face up" to the negative impact social media is having on young people.

"There are young girls out there taking their own lives because of social media," said Megan Brown, 15, from Schull.

She was taking part in a protest at Facebook's European headquarters and Dáil Éireann on Wednesday.

She has seen her own peers have full access to smartphones and social media from the age of seven.

"I haven't had social media for that long but a lot of my friends, when we were in primary school, started getting smart phones and Instagram and Twitter. So I saw things through them from about seven and eight.

"They had full access to everything, especially girls. Some of the things they were exposed to... but the biggest pressure is how you need to look a certain way and if you don't you're not good enough," said Megan.

The Cork teenager explained it was common for young girls to have a group discussion about their bodies while out socialising.

"At a disco, they'd get together and talk about their bodies – and a lot of people across the planet are facing this, not just us," she said.

Young Uplift Ireland campaigners from Cork outside the offices of Facebook in Dublin. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Young Uplift Ireland campaigners from Cork outside the offices of Facebook in Dublin. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

On a personal level, she is regularly targeted with make-up ads on Instagram and also receives direct messages "from a bunch of creepy old men".

Despite her own personal awareness of the impact social media has on people her age, she does not know if the rest of her generation are as aware.

"When we were putting up posters about going up to Dublin [to the protest], they weren't aware of the damaging effects of social media and there are people who feel very insecure about their bodies," said Megan.

There are also those of her peers who "know it [social media] is bad but they can't escape it".

'Body dysmorphia' most negative impact

"Body dysmorphia" is the most negative impact social media is having on young females, the Cork teenager believes.

Having all these big celebrities photoshopping their bodies or getting surgery and lying to their audiences and saying this is what you should look like – this is the kind of stuff pushed on teenage girls and it's causing body dysmorphia." 

However, she believes that banning phones or social media is how parents should approach the issue with their children, instead it is "being able to have discussions about it at home from as young as four".

She does, however, believe far more pressure needs to be put on Facebook to protect its users, especially when the company's own research has shown the harm that social media can have on people.

Another teenager speaking out about the harms of social media is Dorothy-Ann van der Vlugt, 13, from Lowertown in West Cork.

She describes Instagram as "very intimidating".

"It's very intimidating because you're basically getting told you need to have this specific type of body.

"Some people would feel attacked by basically getting told you need to have this perfect body, but for me I feel intimidated.

"It's a lot of pictures coming at you and telling you have to have this perfect body and perfect face," she said.

Perfect body and face

And what is this so-called perfect body and face being pushed on young girls in 2021 via social media?

"Skinny, small face, big eyes, big breasts," said Dorothy-Ann.

She said the pressure for this type of body made her feel "very self conscious".

"If I saw those images I would feel more insecure," said Dorothy-Ann.

And are young girls taking steps to emulate the idealised beauty they see online?

"Young girls, teenagers, they want their bodies to look like that and they go to extreme measures to do so. They would definitely do something about it, you know, to copy what they see online. I think girls feel boys would like it, but I don't think they [boys] do," she said.

Again, banning social media or smartphones is not the answer, believes Dorothy-Ann, but having open conversations about the harms will help.

I think it's helpful to tell your children that it's not all about having the perfect body or the perfect face, and you should love yourself and your own body as it is. My own sister helped me because she told me that what you see online isn't reality.

"We need to tell young people to not believe everything you see online," said Dorothy-Ann.

Visual protest

The teenagers were part of a visual protest that was spurred on by the recent allegations against Facebook. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen published files showing internal company research on the harms the platform was having on young people, especially around body image and mental health.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. Picture: AP /Francois Mori
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. Picture: AP /Francois Mori

The protest was organised by Uplift, a community of about 350,000 people all over Ireland, that takes coordinated action around matters of social justice.

The teenagers also hand delivered an open letter to Media Minister Catherine Martin and Minister for State Robert Troy asking that they take a lead on stronger rules on social media corporations.

"We are saying 'face up to Facebook','' said Layla Wade, a campaigner at Uplift.

"This Government has the power to rein in big tech corporations like Facebook. We are trying to highlight to the Government that they can't be let off the hook for letting Facebook off the hook," she added.

One of the demands in the letter to the ministers is that they call on Facebook executives to appear before an Oireachtas committee to answer questions about their conduct and inaction.

Tonight, a spokesman for Catherine Martin said she is progressing "as a matter of urgency" the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, which will end the era of self-regulation in online safety. 

"The Bill will, among other things, establish an Online Safety Commissioner, with robust powers and sanction, including fines of up to €20m," the spokesman said.

"The Commissioner will enforce binding online safety codes. These include seeking to reduce harmful online content, including cyberbullying, material promoting eating disorders and self-harm or suicide. The Minister is also assessing a Joint Oireachtas Committee pre-legislative scrutiny report on the Bill."

He said Ms Martin is aware of concerns about the effects of certain image-focused social media platforms and has offered to meet the group.

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