Wednesday 24 July 2019

Obsession with ‘cyber self’ harming our children

Warning: Cyberpsychologist Dr Mary Aiken. Pic Steve Humphreys
Warning: Cyberpsychologist Dr Mary Aiken. Pic Steve Humphreys

Caroline Crawford

Teenagers are becoming obsessed with their ‘cyber self’ on social media while in the real world they may feel they are ugly or fat.

One in three Irish teens feels under enormous pressure about their body weight and shape, a leading cyberpsychologist has warned.

Speaking at the IDA (Irish Dental Association) conference in Galway, Dr Mary Aiken said incidences of body dysmorphia were on the increase in Ireland and questioned the role of social media platforms.

Body dysmorphia is an obsession with body shape or features such as hair, nose or teeth.

In 2013, 11.4pc of all admissions to psychiatric hospitals or clinics here were related to body dysmorphia disorder. However, this rose to 14pc last year.

Dr Aiken said as a cyberpsychologist, she was concerned by the pressure that young people were under in terms of how they presented themselves online.

“A young person can create a social media profile that is a highly curated and manipulated artefact, it can be an aspirational self,” she said.

“Apps or filters can be used to create better skin, shinier hair, whiter teeth or to appear five pounds lighter.

“The problem is that this ‘cyber self’ can become increasingly distant from the real world self, and it can become harder to live up to the perfect image of self that is projected online.

“This is of concern when it comes to children or young teens who may be particularly vulnerable,” she said.

A study of Irish teens found that 71.4pc felt adversely affected by media portrayal of body weight and shape.

Dr Aiken said professionals were seeing an increase in the number of Irish youths under the age of 18 presenting with an eating disorder, which can be associated with body dysmorphic disorder. 

She questioned whether technology was a contributing factor in this increase, specifically the pressure associated with children presenting themselves on social media platforms.

Dr Aiken, who inspired the the US TV programme ‘CSI: Cyber’, said the internet as it stood was not fit for purpose.

“I would not allow children under the age of 14 use it, because as parents you cannot control what the kids are accessing. And please don’t say parental controls – don’t think for one moment that kids don’t know how to bypass them.”

She praised the EU for considering a digital consent directive that no child under 16 can join any of these platforms without explicit consent from their parents.

“I thought it was a great move in the right direction but there was a big outcry from industry.

“I think 14 would be a good age for explicit consent so parents know what their children are doing,” she said.

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