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The Harmful Effects of Sexualized Social Media and Gaming on Young People

Children aged 8-12 spend four to six hours daily in front of screens, according to a 2020 study from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. This means for the highest tween users, their time absorbing media from smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles is not far behind how much time they spend in school. For teens, the figure is closer to nine hours, far exceeding their school hours. What are they learning?

The answer to this question should be concerning to us all. Girls and women are being sexually objectified, affecting how they see themselves and how boys and men see them. These problematic outcomes are not contained to the screens, and spill seamlessly into the real world. They include anxiety, depression, disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, and more. Perhaps most troubling is a decrease in sexual agency, disempowering girls and women from taking control of their own sexuality.

Culture Reframed researched the topic and produced a white paper, Sexualization, Social Media, and Video Gaming, exploring various studies around sexualized social media and gaming and its influence on young people. Read highlights of those findings here.

When Sexualized Social Media Becomes “A Day-to Day-Thing”

Much of tweens’ and teens’ screen time is spent on social media — viewing, liking and posting on multiple platforms. According to Statista, in February 2023, U.S. children were spending an average of 113 minutes each day on TikTok, 90 minutes on Snapchat, and between 10-20 minutes each on Pinterest, Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. As these platforms are replete with sexualized images of young women, the effects for girls and women can include feelings of sexual objectification and shame; fixation on thinness and dieting; and increased anxiety and depression.

A study on adolescent girls’ perceptions of sexualized images on social media reported that the sexualized images shared by celebrities “were perceived to further reinforce to girls that they can receive more attention and validation by posting similar photos of themselves.” One young teen told the researchers, “It’s just a day-to-day thing.” This seemingly routine activity conveys a troubling message conveyed by another young woman: “That you’re nothing but your body.” Several girls interviewed for the study said the message to boys is that females are not equal to males because they are only valued for their sexuality.

This message is not just communicated to teens. A similar study found that six-year-old girls exposed to sexualized media desire thinner bodies and to wear “significantly sexier clothing.” By this young age, “girls have already begun to internalize contemporary sociocultural beauty ideals.” This can have real-life consequences for the mental health of girls and young women, which affects their experiences in the real world.

Psychological and Real-Life Consequences of Sexualized Social Media

The more that girls and women are exposed to sexually objectifying media, the more they adopt an external viewer’s perspective on their own bodies and perceive themselves as objects. This view of themselves can be harmful. Multiple studies have found that self-objectification among girls and women gives rise to and intensifies low self-esteem, diminished life satisfaction, negative body image, shame, and disordered eating.

Other studies have found that sexualized media influences sexist attitudes, consent, and agency. The findings of some of those studies are highlighted below.

Sexual Harassment and Misogyny in Video and Online Gaming

Female characters are overtly sexualized in the digital sphere of video and online gaming, creating similar issues related to sexual objectification as other sexualized media, as well as additional consequences. In the online gaming world, it is also possible to interact with these sexualized avatars and other players, which can create an environment for female gamers — who make up slightly less than half of all U.S. gamers — that is rife with misogyny and subjects them to sexual harassment.

The online sexual harassment of female gamers, which in one highly publicized case involving female gaming journalists included rape threats, gives rise to anxiety and distress as well as loneliness. All this amounts to an emotional and cognitive tax on female gamers that is not imposed on boys and men. For children of both sexes, online gaming can also provide a platform for predators, many of whom attempt to gain their target’s trust by impersonating a younger person before soliciting inappropriate photos.

In a distinction from social media, many video games combine the sexualization of women and girls with violence. For example, in the popular game series Grand Theft Auto, gamers can manipulate their characters to have sex with prostituted women. They can have their character hit and beat the women and then flee without paying and even kill the prostituted women after sex.

Studies have shown that this sexualized violence affects male attitudes toward women, making for real-world consequences. More than one study has found that gamers registered an increase in hostile sexism when they directed aggression against sexualized female characters. Multiple studies show that sexualized game avatars lead to self-objectification and can also prompt an increase in rape victim blaming.

Teaching Feminism & Critical Media Literacy

While concerns about sexualized social media and gaming and its impacts on young people are sometimes dismissed as a puritanical rejection of sexuality, these criticisms easily fall apart. They fail to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy sexuality, tacitly endorsing sexualization that does little to liberate the sexual autonomy of young people.

Instead of dismissing these concerns, we need to call out the inherent sexism and misogyny in our media. Perhaps the best way to do that is to teach another lesson — one about strong feminism and critical media literacy — that runs contrary to the damaging scripts children and young people are learning from their screens.

By learning this lesson, youth can reject and resist the harmful messages from social media and gaming. With this ability comes another: The ability for young people of all genders and sexual identities to reclaim ownership of their sexuality and express it as they choose, on their own terms, in their own ways.

To learn more about this important topic, read the full white paper here: Sexualization, Social Media, and Video Gaming.

Group of young people using and looking at mobile phone while sitting together