Appearance targeted bullying is bullying that targets an aspect of a person's appearance, such as their size, height or disfigurement. It can often be linked with other types of bullying such as racist bullying, disablist bullying, sexist bullying and bullying of LGBT young people. It is often thought of as the most common reason for children experiencing bullying.
The impact of social media
Research published in 2023 by the American Psychological Association found that teens and young adults who reduced their social media use by 50% for just a few weeks saw significant improvement in how they felt about both their weight and their overall appearance compared with peers who maintained consistent levels of social media use.
“Adolescence is a vulnerable period for the development of body image issues, eating disorders and mental illness,” said lead author Gary Goldfield, PhD, of Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. “Youth are spending, on average, between six to eight hours per day on screens, much of it on social media. Social media can expose users to hundreds or even thousands of images and photos every day, including those of celebrities and fashion or fitness models, which we know leads to an internalization of beauty ideals that are unattainable for almost everyone, resulting in greater dissatisfaction with body weight and shape.”
Changing Faces: ChildWise survey 2021
Commissioned by Changing Faces, independent research company ChildWise surveyed 1400 children aged 7-16 across the UK (June/July 2021). 600 (43%) children self-identified as having a visible difference such as a scar, mark or condition that affects their appearance. Some new findings from this survey included:
Appearance related concerns have increased among young people, compared to three years ago. Just one in four 7-16 year olds feel confident about how they look (25%), down from 39% in 2018. Additionally, one in five young people say they don’t like their appearance at all.
Young people with a visible difference are three times more likely to have experienced repeated unkind messages about their appearance on social media (16% versus 5%), and twice as likely to have had personal photographs sent to other people at school without their consent (17% versus 9%).
- School is a much tougher environment for young people with a visible difference. One in three had mean comments relating to their appearance (31%, compared with 20%), and for one in four this has escalated to some form of bullying (24%, compared with 13%). It is therefore no surprise that they are more likely than their peers to feel worried or anxious about starting a new school (40% versus 29%).
Fewer than one in five 7-16 year olds have told a teacher about someone being bullied because of the way they look (17%). Two in five young people with a visible difference have done this or know someone else who has done this (40%).
Nearly half of 7-16 year olds have tried to stop someone being bullied for the way they look or know someone else who has done this (46%) – this increases to over half for those with a visible difference.
Changing the perfect picture: an inquiry into body image - Women and Equalities Committee Report 2021
This report followed a call for evidence about body image in young people from the Women and Equalities Committee. It found
- that appearance related bullying is a significant cause of negative body image in young people.
- that WHO reported that children in higher weight categories were 63% more likely to be bullied.
- that appearance related bullying was interlinked with disablist bullying, bullying of those with a disfigurement, racist bullying and bullying of LGBT young people.
- the digital lives of children and young people were exacerbating the problem of poor body image.
It recommended that the forthcoming Online Harms Bill included measures to improve body image in young people and reduce appearance related bullying.
More than half (55%) of young people have been bullied about the way they look, with two-fifths of those experiencing this bullying at least once a week, findings from YMCA England & Wales in 2018 show.
Most of the bullying focuses on weight and body shape, with 60% of young people admitting they tried to change their appearance after being bullied and 24% said they reduced the amount they ate or went on a diet. In some cases, the effect was more severe with one in ten of those being bullied about their looks having suicidal thoughts and 9% saying they self-harmed as a result.
YMCA England & Wales spoke to more than 1,000 young people aged 11 to 16 years old as part of its 2018 research report ‘In Your Face’, which is part of its Be Real Campaign with Dove.
Highlighting the devastating effects appearance-based bullying has on young people, the research also revealed that, contrary to popular belief, most young people experience this bullying in person (72%) and not online. A staggering 80% of those getting bullied about the way they look say it takes place in school or college.
Other key findings from the Be Real Campaign’s ‘In Your Face’ research include:
- 54% of young people who experience bullying about the way they look, do so by the age of 10
- 1 in 2 of young people reported becoming anxious as a result of being bullied about the way they look
- 53% of young people think bullies have insecurities about themselves / their own appearance
Understanding young people’s experiences of racially motivated appearance focused bullying
Watch the video below for an introduction to the Emerging Minds funded research project led by Dr Shioma-lei Craythorne (Aston University) about young people's experiences of racially motivated appearace-targeted bullying. It includes reference to research that found: