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The Link Between Teen Body Image and Drug Use

Doubts and insecurities can become overwhelming when a teenager stares into a mirror. In all too many cases, this crippling feeling leads to mental illness and self-destructive habits such as drug addiction. If poor self-image and substance abuse are a problem with your child, you can get them help today.

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8 min read

What Is Body Image?

teen girl measuring her waist

“Body image” is a person’s perception of how they look — especially in relation to their peers. This can include their size, their features and any slight quirks their face or body may have. No matter age or location, people develop certain opinions regarding their appearance. Teenagers struggle with body image issues as much if not more than anyone — as they prepare each day to walk around school and face judgment from their peers.

While many teens have a positive body image, some young people carry around negative perceptions of themselves. In one survey of teen girls, 80% reported complaining about their appearance at least once in the past month.

What Influences Body Image?

People develop their perceptions of body image from an early age — based on the world around them. It begins with family and friends, then continues with the people on TV and in movies. By high school or even middle school, people absorb hundreds of images a day. Celebrities and models on billboards and magazines, the sea of people walking down the street, and now, the barrage of images on the internet and social media.

The subconscious effects on a developing adolescent are enormous. Teenagers soak in these daily observations and use them as measuring sticks for their own perceived attractiveness or physical health. In the United States, teens spend an average of 9 hours a day using or viewing some form of media — more time than they spend in school or sleeping.

While magazines and other pop culture fixtures have been shaping body image for decades, the up-and-coming generations are quite bombarded by images thanks to new technology. As of late 2015, the following numbers show the impact of the internet:

    • 67% of teens have their own smartphones
    • More than 90% of teens are on social media
    • Around 55% of teenage girls say that social media — which they’re on almost constantly — makes them feel more self-conscious about their appearance

How Body Image Affects Teens

teen girl looks in shattered mirror

Struggling with body image is an unfortunate symptom of growing up. As children face the uphill battle of making friends, defining their personality and getting an education, they must also juggle the stressful and often irrational ideas of what they should look like.

Many teenagers feel overweight, underweight, pale, pimply or simply ugly. Girls are now wearing makeup as young as 8 years old — earlier than ever before. A young person’s mind is fragile enough as it is — add in body image anxiety, and it can become a detriment that steers them down a grim path.

Often, to cope with the self-esteem issues of negative body image, teens abuse drugs or engage in binge drinking. They may do so in order to:

    • Escape from feelings of low self-worth and depression
    • Increase confidence
    • Establish social contacts
    • Win approval from peers
    • Mimic the perceived attributes of “attractive” people (i.e. “fitting in”)
    • Lose inhibitions

In addition to escaping from or offsetting negative feelings, teens may experiment with drugs and alcohol in an effort to directly address body issues. A study from 2013 revealed that 7% of teens abuse steroids or growth hormones to appear larger or feel more physically fit. Concerns about weight — perhaps the most pressing body image issue — often results in the development of a teenage eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia. More than 30 million people in the U.S. struggle with some form an eating disorder.

Teen addiction (or substance use disorder), is a diagnosable mental health problem. Nearly 2 million kids in the U.S. meet the criteria for addiction, and they typically develop as a result of underlying psychiatric issues (including negative body image). Poor body image can pave the way for other, equally dangerous mental illnesses as well, including teen depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In turn, these disorders can lead to self-harm and are even linked to teen suicide.

Males vs. Females

Historically, dangerous body image ideals have been linked to females more than males. Unrealistic body standards for women are ubiquitous, and this has a blatant impact on girls growing up — nearly half of girls aged 6–8 say they wish they were slimmer. Girls with low self-esteem before the age of 12 are 2.5 times more likely to drink heavily during high school, and use of diet pills is up to 4 times more common in girls than boys.

All that being said, we shouldn’t pretend that boys don’t feel similar pressures to look good — in a world that increasingly glorifies overt attractiveness. While girls feel an immense pressure to be pencil-thin, boys are force-fed the standards of athletes and action stars. A study released in 2013 revealed that body image issues in young males correlates with depression and drug use. Around 1 in 10 eating disorder cases involve males, and millions of teenage boys will struggle with unhealthy body issues without reaching out for help. This all too often leads to risky behaviors, such as drug use or self-harming behaviors, and the development of emotional problems such as anxiety or depression.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

teen checks face in mirror

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a chronic mental condition in which a person obsesses about a perceived physical flaw in their appearance. Sufferers invest much time and energy into thinking about or attempting to remedy said flaw, which may be imagined to exist on skin, hair or certain body parts such as arms, breasts, the stomach, genitalia and more.

About 1 in 50 people have BDD. This condition plagues people of all ages, but adolescents are especially vulnerable to body dysmorphia, since teen body image is often fragile. The disorder frequently begins in childhood or adolescence, and it continues into adulthood.

Teens with BDD are more likely to have suicidal ideation and also to use drugs. In fact, almost half of BDD sufferers also have a substance abuse disorder. Body dysmorphic disorder treatment is available and effective. Speak to a medical professional to find out what your teen’s options are.

Does Your Teen Need Professional Addiction Treatment?

When your teenager shows signs of an emotional problem such as BDD or develops symptoms of addiction, it’s time to ask a doctor for help in assessing the situation. If your teen’s doctor finds that addiction is present, they will probably recommend that your family find some form of rehab for your child.

We at TeenRehabCenter.org are addiction advisors who have significant experience helping families like yours. We have seen and felt the pain of teen addiction. And though it seems paradoxical, we know how hard it can be to let your child go to rehab, even when you know it’s the best thing for them. When you have tried to help your child overcome addiction at home, but have found you can’t do it, please realize that this is okay. It is time to place your trust in the hands of professionals. We know it’s tough. If you like, just give us a call and we can talk through all of your concerns. It’s free to talk to us, and everything we discuss will stay safely between us and you. Don’t wait another day to find help — your child needs you now more than ever.

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