The Self-Image Revolution: Empowering Young Girls in the Digital Era

Social media, mental health, and the influential force of PR

About the author

Rachael Anderson prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

Microsoft Bing Image Creator
Microsoft Bing Image Creator
Rachael Anderson
Rachael Anderson

Social media has become a dominating force in our daily lives, captivating us with endless content and competing for our attention. As communication professionals, we are well acquainted with both the power and perils of social media.

However, with mounting evidence revealing the potential negative impact of regular social media use, particularly on the emotional well-being of young girls, we all bear a collective responsibility – to ensure that our social media practices are not just effective, but also ethical.

Enter the rise of purpose-driven Public Relations (PR).

In today’s social-first world, the demand for meaningful action and tangible progress in addressing today’s societal challenges has never been stronger. Savvy consumers, influential stakeholders, and engaged employees are actively seeking out brands that prioritise purpose over profit. But why now? According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report, Gen-Z feel the greatest sense of responsibility for fighting for their future. What’s remarkable is the ripple effect this is having on other generation’s beliefs, purchasing decisions, and way of life.

Let’s take sustainability as an example. Recent findings from the First Insight report indicate a seismic shift in sustainability purchasing among older generations within the past two years. Greg Petro, CEO of First Insight, has acknowledged the role of Gen-Z in driving this shift through education and influence. As “digital natives”, this generation possesses a unique ability to amplify their voices online, transcending generational boundaries and sparking widespread awareness and engagement.  Fellow PR professionals, it’s high time we recognise and embrace this influence if we are to strategically plan for the success of our businesses.

The interlink between social media, mental health and PR

In recent years, there has been a surge in mental health awareness, spearheaded by Gen-Z fearlessly engaging in open conversations about their experiences and struggles across social media platforms. According to a study by Ogilvy, an astounding 70% of Gen-Zers believe that their mental health requires more attention and improvement. In response to this growing concern, brands have recognised the importance of incorporating mental health messaging into their communication strategies. Supporting this trend,  YPulse data reveals that 71% of Gen-Z consumers appreciate brands that prioritise mental health in their messaging. So, how are well-known brands responding?

One area particularly resonates with me: the profound impact social media is having on the mental well-being of young girls, a topic that holds deep personal significance to me as a mother of two.

By leveraging the visual power of social media platforms, brands entrust their PR and marketing teams with conveying messages that celebrate diversity, individuality, and authenticity. Some are even implementing influencer strategies to establish genuine connections with Gen-Z consumers. The outcome? Numerous brands and influencers have emerged as pioneers in tackling today’s societal challenges head-on. As a fellow PR professional, one area particularly resonates with me: the profound impact social media is having on the mental well-being of young girls, a topic that holds deep personal significance to me as a mother of two.

The dark side of social media

Social media platforms have undeniably transformed the way we share, connect, and engage with others on a rapid and global scale. It’s reported that one-in-three people worldwide use social media and for an average of 2 hours 24 minutes daily. The numbers are simply staggering. However, studies are also revealing that this level of connectivity comes at a price for some users.

Hootsuite’s 2022 digital trends study highlights Instagram’s significant appeal among Millennial and Gen-Z users. However, the Royal Society for Public Health survey reveals a disturbing association between popular online platforms and heightened levels of anxiety, depression, poor body image, and loneliness among young adults aged 14 to 24. Of particular concern is the impact on young girls, who bear the brunt of these effects as the primary users. Startling statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicate that in 2021, 30% of teenage girls had seriously contemplated suicide – a 60% rise since 2011, coinciding with the rise of social media. Cyberbullying further exacerbates these problems, particularly affecting teenage girls, with 60% experiencing some form of cyberbullying, as reported by the Pew Research Centre. The tragic death of 14-year-old Molly Russell in 2017, who fell victim to the pressures of online content, serves as a stark reminder of the grim reality behind these statistics and the urgent need for stricter online regulations.

The psychology of social media

So what drives social media’s profound impact on young peoples’ mental health? To uncover the answer, we can turn to academic theories. Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory explains that individuals have an innate drive to evaluate themselves by comparing their abilities, traits, and opinions to others’. Social media platforms provide fertile ground for such comparisons when users are constantly encountering carefully curated versions of others’ lives, naturally leading to feelings of inadequacy and envy.

Persuasion theory, specifically the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) by Petty and Cacioppo, reveals a further influential power of social media in shaping attitudes and behaviours. Young girls are being constantly exposed to persuasive messages, bombarded with advertisements, sponsored posts, and influencer endorsements. When brands and influencers strategically use captivating visuals, relatable content, and endorsements to capture attention, this can trigger different levels of cognitive elaboration among users.

However, the rise of “cancel culture” and changing consumer expectations are driving a shift in brand behaviour. Companies now face pressure to address social issues, including social media’s impact on young girls. Brands that rely on manipulation tactics like influencer marketing, celebrity endorsements, and advertising with aspirational lifestyles risk being condemned for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards and body image issues. For example, Forever 21 was criticised for targeting young girls with manipulative tactics with their reliance on influencer marketing, celebrity endorsements, and targeted advertising with attractive visuals and aspirational lifestyles.

Brands that rely on manipulation tactics like influencer marketing, celebrity endorsements, and advertising with aspirational lifestyles risk being condemned for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards and body image issues.

The takeaway is clear: as practitioners, it is our responsibility to understand these psychological theories and their implications for social media. By crafting ethical strategies that align with our values and better serve our audiences, we can use the power of social media to effect positive change.

Pioneering brands embracing authenticity and purpose

Trust is the ultimate currency in business, and engaging with customers authentically and humbly is key to earning it. Dove’s ‘Reverse Selfie Campaign’ is a prime example of blending brand authenticity with purpose. In partnership with Ogilvy, Dove released a powerful film through the use of visual storytelling that captures the journey of a teenage girl, to explore the profound impact of selfie manipulation among teenage girls on social media. Alessandro Manfredi, Dove’s executive vice president, emphasised the campaign’s purpose, stating, ‘Girls all around the world have begun to feel the pressure to edit and distort how they look, to create something ‘perfect’ which cannot be achieved in real life.’ Accompanied by the #TheSelfieTalk movement, empowering parents to discuss self-image, the campaign made an incredible impact. Econsultancy reported a staggering six billion global impressions, making it Dove’s most influential purpose-driven campaign to date. Brand affinity increased by 21%, leading to an impressive 11.9% uplift in cross-category value sales. The takeaway is clear: brands that genuinely listen to customer concerns and engage in authentic conversations can achieve remarkable results.

Boohoo’s 2022 #boohoofilterfree social campaign exemplifies another powerful example of how an online retailer can drive positive societal change. Recognising the detrimental effects of filters on young girls’ self-esteem, boohoo set out to combat filter abuse and promote self-acceptance. The brand encouraged influencers and customers to share ‘filter-free’ posts on social media. But the campaign went beyond activism; it actively supported legislation to enforce transparency in influencer marketing, advocating for stricter regulations. This mirrored the legislative progress in France, where a groundbreaking photoshop law was introduced, mandating written warnings for edited commercial images. The lesson is again clear: to build trust and authenticity, attentively listen to customers and create resonating messages. By addressing customer concerns and values, brands can drive meaningful change and forge lasting connections.

Aerie, the body-positive brand rejecting retouched imagery, offers another unique approach to combatting the negative impacts of online platforms. Aerie’s #AerieREAL movement collaborated with influential voices, long-term brand partners, and ambassadors to spread its message. The heart of the campaign lies in a series of PSAs (Positive Scrolling Always) where brand partners share unfiltered advice on managing social media time, acts of kindness, and prioritising mental health. Aerie also leverages TikTok with the #AerieREAL challenge, encouraging the community to flood the feed with positivity and share inspirational quotes with friends.

As PR professionals, we can learn valuable lessons from Aerie. Aerie’s success stems from its dedication to promoting happiness and well-being with its loyal community. Secondly, the brand leverages multiple channels, recognising the importance of connecting with target audiences across their preferred platforms.

However, not all brands have achieved the same level of success. Victoria’s Secret, once a symbol of beauty and femininity, faced criticism for failing to represent diversity and inclusivity in its campaigns. Instead, the brand was accused of promoting unrealistic and unattainable beauty standards, negatively impacting the self-esteem of many young girls. Social media became a platform for disappointed customers and activists who demanded change, rallying behind hashtags like #BodyPositivity and #BoycottVictoriasSecret. In response, Victoria’s Secret embarked on a rebranding effort, bringing in new executives and partnering with influential figures like Megan Rapinoe, a strong advocate for gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights. While some saw these efforts as a step in the right direction, others remained sceptical, questioning the authenticity and viewing the rebrand as superficial. As Andrew Griffin famously said, “a reputation is far easier to destroy than it is to build.” Rebuilding their reputation and regaining the trust of their target audience will be a challenging and lengthy journey.

The influencer effect

It’s not only well-known brands that teach us, as communication professionals, valuable lessons in connecting with our audiences and driving positive change. The influencer community also offers a fresh perspective. Jameela Jamil, a fearless advocate for body positivity, stands out with her impactful “I Weigh” Instagram community. She courageously calls out celebrities like the Kardashians for perpetuating unrealistic and unattainable beauty standards. Jameela’s influence has led to collaborations with esteemed brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Always, amplifying her messages. Similarly, singer and body-positive icon Lizzo uses her music, performances, and social media presence to radiate self-love and individuality. Both women share authentic stories that ignite conversations challenging societal norms, forming loyal connections. They also consistently deliver positive messages across various channels and collaborate with like-minded brands and influencers to reach larger audiences and make a greater impact.

Unleashing the power of PR: Takeaways

To all the dedicated PR professionals out there, it’s time to step up and be the catalysts for change within our organisations. Armed with these valuable takeaways, let’s embark on a journey of purpose and commitment to the causes we believe in:

  1. Know your audience inside and out! Engage, learn, and involve them in shaping the narratives that drive your organisation’s success.
  2. In today’s ever-evolving landscape, authenticity is no longer a bonus — it’s a necessity. Stay true to your organisation’s values, be genuine, and showcase the real side of your brand to foster genuine connections.
  3. Use your storytelling expertise to craft purposeful narratives that leave a lasting impact on your audience’s hearts and minds.
  4. Join forces with like-minded individuals and organisations through powerful partnerships to amplify your influence together.
  5. Champion diversity and inclusivity within your organisation. Give a voice to all, embracing the power of different perspectives.
  6. In all your online interactions, prioritise responsibility first. Cultivate a culture of honesty, integrity, and respect.
  7. Transparency breeds trust. Be open, accountable, and genuine in all your communications. Let your stakeholders see the true heartbeat of your organisation.
  8. Measure what truly matters. Track behaviour change, attitude shifts, and the long-term societal impact of your campaigns.
  9. Stay agile, adaptable, and ready to respond to evolving issues in real-time.
  10. Never stop learning and growing. Continuously evolve your craft, embracing new opportunities, learning from experiences.

Together, as PR professionals, we have the power to shape narratives, foster trust, and bring about impactful change. It’s time to make our mark!

This article was researched and written by a human. The main image was created by AI using Microsoft Bing Image Creator.