Recoupling with youth mental health
By Phoebe Weller, Consultant

Last month, more than 4 million viewers tuned in to watch Dani Dyer and Jack Fincham be crowned this year’s winners of the hit TV show Love Island.

Setting new ratings records for ITV2, the popularity of this year’s Love Island series has sparked debate about our society’s relationship (one could almost say obsession) with appearance and body image. The show, and others like it, elevate image above all else; parading ultra-thin, perfectly tanned men and women across our screens as they couple (and re-couple) on the basis of how attractive they find each other on any given day.

But how deep does our obsession with body image go? Clearly, it does not end with the shows themselves; newly-crowned winners Jack and Dani continue to share their lives with a combined 5 million Instagram followers – the Prime Minister, by comparison, enjoys a measly 73 thousand.

Most worryingly, perhaps, is the particular consumption of these images (and social media more generally) by young people. Research by ComRes for the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations (CoMO) showed that over half (52%) of European teenagers aged 14-18 checked Instagram at least once a day, and two thirds (65%) at least once a week. This consumption affects the way young people think, too; another ComRes survey, for BBC Newsround, found that 78% of 10-12 year olds who post selfies on social media say that it is important to look good in them.

The impact that this consumption of image-driven material is having on young people has raised concerns among healthcare professionals and mental health campaigners. NHS England CEO Simon Stevens has raised explicit concerns over the impact of social media and reality TV on the mental health of young consumers, warning that social media companies and advertisers risk ‘ending on the wrong side of history’ by promoting an unhealthy ‘cultural obsession’ with the perfect body.

Clearly, age matters in the age of social media and reality TV: ‘millennials’ are consistently more likely than their older counterparts to report using sites such as Instagram and Facebook, over half (51%) of those tuning into the launch episode of Love Island final were aged 16-34.

In the same way, the impact of these shows on body confidence follows a clear age gradient: ComRes research for BBC Radio Five Live revealed that 55% of 18-34 year olds think reality TV shows and social media have a negative impact on the way they see their body, compared to a third (34%) of those aged 35-44 and one in five (19%) of those aged 55+. In turn, one fifth (21%) of 18-24 year olds say that shows like Love Island make them more likely to consider plastic surgery or cosmetic procedures – higher than for any other age group.

This is the criticism facing shows like Love Island: placing body image on a pedestal promotes an unrealistic ideal among a young demographic that is already experiencing a growing crisis in mental wellbeing. The potential consequences are severe – a recent rise in the number of hospital admissions for self-harm among teenage girls (from 7,327 in 1997 to 13,463 in 2017) has been explicitly linked to social media by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

So, where do shows like Love Island go from here? With campaigns such as the Royal Society of Public Health’s ‘Scroll-free September’ encouraging social media detox, and increasing NHS criticism of unrealistic body images, one could be forgiven for thinking that these shows are on the way out. And still, they continue to grow in popularity among the very groups at risk of suffering negative consequences.

With the search for next year’s islanders underway, can producers be expected to ‘know what’s best’ for their consumers? I’ll see you at next summer’s launch to find out…