Social media responsibility - Positive actions for teen body image improvement

Penny Shell
By Penny Shell | 17 August 2023
Penny Shell.

Penny Shell, Chief Product Officer, OMD Australia

What we know

Social media for teens is considered ‘essential’ for lives lived simultaneously online and offline. 99% of Australian teens are active social media users – Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok the most popular platforms. Social media’s engagement, connectivity and enablement of passions, friendships, interests, access, and even academic or entrepreneurial endeavours are only increasing with the capabilities, tech and platforms available.

What we also know, is that social media usage can contribute to negative body image and eating disorders – especially amongst teens.

This was highlighted in 2021, by the widely reported release of internal Meta documents by former Meta manager Frances Haugen, including the March 2020 survey revealing that Instagram ‘makes body image issues worse for one in three girls’.

Former Meta manager Frances Haugen’s leaked 2021 Meta documents have been well documented, including the March 2020 survey revealing that Instagram ‘makes body image issues worse for one in three girls’.Newly released research from Australia’s Butterfly Foundation Body Kind Youth 2023 study with NIB (1,635 participants 12-18 years old) recently reported that almost 50% of young people said social media made them feel dissatisfied about their bodies. Young people said that they want to see changes in the way social media presents body ideals and beauty standards, as well as stricter guidelines around harmful content.

In the years since Haugen’s whistleblowing actions, social media platforms have made efforts, largely around content and hashtag moderation, to address harmful content contributing to this issue.  Unilever’s Dove haves famously championed this cause in their ‘Cost of Beauty’ initiative, with a global petition to hold social media platforms to a higher account.

The time seems right for positive change. The last few weeks have seen the launch of Threads – a self proclaimedself-proclaimed ‘friendlier’ antidote to the reported controversies and aggression seen on Twitter.  Zuckerberg claims a design feature has friendliness as a core intention, “The goal is to keep it friendly as it expands … That’s one reason why Twitter never succeeded as much as I think it should have, and we want to do it differently”.”  In writing this piece, I also have also been encouraged by the initiatives already taking place between Meta and The Butterfly Foundation.

Let’s make positive shifts in our image basedimage-based platforms and search functions too.

As an industry, I believe we have the ability and responsibility to help champion more positive change from within, now. Inspired by findings by Associate Professor Gemma Sharp, Senior Clinical Psychologist and Head of Body Image at Monash University, and colleagues, I have identified actions and approaches that platforms and advertisers can take to minimise the negative impact of social media on teens’ body image and self-worth.

This is personal

Over one million Australians are living with an eating disorder. The mortality rate for eating disorders is between one and a half to twelve times higher than the average population – the highest of any mental health condition (Butterfly Foundation, 2022 – National Library of Medicine).

12 weeks ago, a teen close to my heart was diagnosed with an eating disorder.

Without a doubt, social media is only one potential contributing factor within a complex mental health battle we’re facing. However, in our brief lived experience, it is easy to see for vulnerable teens that the increasingly image based social media world can quickly exacerbate feelings of body dissatisfaction, provide unrealistic comparisons and appearance standards, and reinforce negative perceptions and behaviours.

Our industry has an opportunity to set new standards for social media responsibility and guidelines to help make platforms safer for anyone with body dissatisfaction, eating disorders or disordered eating.

Let’s do more than moderate the negative – let’s curate the positive

To date, actions taken by social media platforms to reduce negative body image hasve included moderation, largely through identifying hashtags to remove curated content around potentially harmful themes. Platforms also embed the capability for user moderation – where users can report inappropriate or upsetting content in situ, electing to ‘see less of these types of posts in feed’.

Whilst moderation is important, it is retrospective (impacting only after problematic content is published) and does not lay the foundations for a safer, more positive environment.

Below are potential actions that platforms, users and advertisers can implement for positive body image change in social media.

  1. From body positive, to body neutral

Early studies have shown that an increase of ‘body neutral’ images in feed – i.e. ‘green’ images of nature, animals and art have seen 5-8% INCREASE of positive body image associations than previously served content. This is a step change from body positive imagery – whilst well intended, balancing content with diverse, non-appearance-based imagery is more effective (Fardouly et al., 2023; Sharp et al., 2023).

There are a few ways we can look to increase body neutral imagery in feed. For example, social platform feed or filter adjustments – ensuring that within the average scroll time users are served a minimum of one ‘green’ image for every appearance-based image. For teen users, increasing the ratio of ‘green’ content further, i.e. 2:1, can help create a safer environment for those most vulnerable on the platform.  Meta’s ‘nudges’ approach is designed to help balance users consuming a variety of content on platform and considers both image and hashtags to prompt new topics – adhering to an equal balance of appearance-based imagery adjacent to green content nudges would provide a good benchmark.


  1. Body neutral content - influence the influencers

The reality is that changes to social media governance and algorithms can take time – and influence. By working with influencers and talent management we can more immediately lead by example when it comes to the content balance.

- Educating influencers on best practise to help create a balanced and ‘safer’ environment, particularly on Instagram:. 

o    Across format, as per the Sharp and Fardouly studies, this would mean a minimum of three ‘green’ images across format (stories / posts) every two weeks.

o    For those influencers with >20% followers who are below 18 years old, recommend an increased ratio of green images versus appearance-based posts.

- We recognise that influencers operate on a currency of engagement (likes / comments / shares) to secure paid partnerships. Therefore, suggest advertisers are encouraged to increase sponsorship dollars to influencers who subscribe to best practise content ratio to maximise brand safety and suitability in the social space, balancing the need for both reach and responsibility.

- Across OMD, our influencer work led by OMD Create is growing rapidly – a significant investment share of branded content. Applying a responsible use of content framework is informing the influencers we partner with - ensuring tangible, positive action in this space. OMD is part of Omnicom Media GroupGroup, and we are rolling out this initiative across all of our agencies in Australia to maximise the positive impact.

  1. From reactive, to proactive

Many social media platforms already dedicate a percentage of advertising to cause based initiatives. Formalising a social media responsibility commitment for dedicated pro bono advertising or community service space for body image support services, for example The Butterfly Foundation, would provide proactive guidance in situ. We see strong support from Meta for The Butterfly Foundation campaign initiatives – an ‘always on’ presence that ensures a regular awareness drive across platforms could layer campaigns with ongoing consumer facing support.

  1. Intercepting behaviours – AI as a force for good

The internet is our most powerful enabler. With any behaviours, positive or problematic, our first point of call for ‘how to’ remains search and social. The advancements in Artificial Intelligence provide us with more opportunity for ‘micro interventions’ when potentially concerning behaviours and patterns of behaviour are signalled. These tactics have already been powerfully adopted by platforms for terms relating to self-harm and bullying. Some potential avenues for helpful prompts and actions relating to body image and eating disorders:

- Search interventions: age basedage-based targeting (via listings or ad formats) to identify repeated behaviours that signal indirect concern. For example, a user 13-18 years who has searched for calorie content information more than three times in succession. 

- Integration of a custom chatbot designed specifically to help with ED interventions: Snapchat‘s helpful AI Chatbot is housed in users’ private DMs and is available for instant information. Redirecting users to an ED specialist chatbot – ege.g. Butterfly’s KIT (now JEM could provide a valuable service in the moment, created and backed by clinicians, researchers and those with lived experience. Again, acknowledging potential signals of disordered eating to prompt an in the moment ‘pause’ for the user may be worthwhile.

Both Google and Snapchat include prompts for professional help for any obviously harmful search enquiry terms. Meta’s Help Centre also provides immediate links to friends, helplines or support information if search enquiries are directly linked to potential eating disorder terms.  The ‘indirect’ query behaviours, for example calorie or weight loss information amongst younger audiences are more nuanced however with advanced targeting capabilities and advice from experts could potentially be enhanced.  

Professor Gemma Sharp advises that it is important with any AI or Chatbot interventions to take a ‘curious stance’ in acknowledging user behaviours (Beilharz…./Sharp, 2021). A response such as ‘I can see that you are frequently searching for information relating to …… would you like to talk to someone?’ with links to relevant support is advised rather than interrupting or jarring formats.

Whilst these initiatives may not change user behaviour, even the opportunity to provide pause and acknowledge there may be a concern is a positive action, versus no action.

  1. ‘Mindful’ scrolling and breaks

Social media scrolling (Beilharz…/Sharp, 2021) can be a never-endingnever-ending void of time – a quick check can turn into hours! Having time limit prompts and restrictions each day as well as ‘take a break’ reminders is a great measure taken by Meta to help parents control time spent on platforms. Other proactive measures for more responsible social media behaviour could include:

- Setting an intention. A prompt when the app is opened to remind users to remain present and scroll more mindfully can ensure the experience is more purposeful.

- Break guidance on durations – for example two minute ‘‘interventions’interventions’. After significant scroll time (perhaps 15 minutes), studies have proven that just two minutes of downtime – a slow TV video, a prompted meditation, interactivity or quizzes – away from feed, have a 5% uplift in positive body image.

We need you

To make positive change in these powerful platforms, I really didn’t know where to start. Thanks to the passion of colleagues, industry friends, members of AIMCO (Australian Influencer Marketing Council), and even “competitors” from agencies, we are starting the conversation. Thanks to the incredible generosity of Professor Gemma Sharp in answering my random email, we continue to have access to real world findings and proven outcomes outside of our industry, regarding social media and mental health.

I would love to hear from anyone across our wider industry who may be keen to help campaign for social media responsibility, and provide a platform to help enable more positive spaces and content practises.  We still operate on a currency of social likes, shares and reach –  extending the brand conversation and currency to include responsibility is critical.

The brave teen close to me has made some progress in recent months.

I hope we can too.

If this article has brought up any issues or struggles for you, or if someone close to you may needs support, please contact The Butterfly Foundation via phone on : Phone 1800 ED HOPE

(1800 33 4673) or online ,

Penny would like to thank Meta for their discussion and collaboration in this piece.

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