Examining the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on adolescent girls

Author: Grace Julian
Episcopal Academy
September 6, 2021


How did the lockdown and social media use affect the body image, eating habits, self-esteem, and mental health of adolescent girls? This paper looks at the impacts the lockdown had on social media usage, body image, and eating/exercise habits. Research shows that adolescent girls found themselves with lower self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and disordered eating habits during and after the pandemic. These changes combined with increased social media use that typically promotes unrealistic body expectations and unhealthy eating and exercise habits lead to an overall decrease in young girls’ self-esteem and body image. Based on these findings, we can formulate ways to help everyone with these unhealthy habits if we ever go into lockdown again in the future and even in our normal daily lives as well. 

On March 12th of last year, schools began shutting down saying that they would be closed for the next two weeks out of precaution against COVID-19. Those two weeks quickly turned into three, and then four, and eventually they turned into months. Those months in quarantine were incredibly tough on everyone. Because everything closed down and everyone was stuck inside, peoples’ schedules changed drastically. For Katy, a freshman in high school on the dance team, covid was incredibly difficult. Halfway through her freshman year, her school shut down because of the pandemic. She was forced to do both school online as well as her dance classes. Because she spent most of her time at home, she found herself looking at social media much more often than before. She also began feeling insecure about falling behind on her goals for dance because of the pandemic, and as a result, she followed lots of fitness and dance influencers to try to learn and improve from them. Unfortunately, she only felt more insecure about how she looked and her abilities because those influencers did not post realistic habits. Those influencers she followed promoted unhealthy eating and exercise habits to “be a better dancer”, which led Katy to adopt those habits. Katy continued to feel bad about herself as she decreased the amount she ate and increased the amount she exercised. Katy now struggles with worsened body image and disordered eating habits that negatively impact her physical and mental health. 

How did the pandemic impact our lives? During the COVID-19 lockdown, a survey of U.S. social media users found that 29.7 percent of respondents were using social media for 1-2 hours additional hours per day. This significant increase was due to the extra time spent at home during the lockdown. Everyone’s normal lives were disrupted. Students were forced to do virtual school, many adults were forced to work from home, and many others even lost their jobs due to the pandemic. The uncertainty and confusion of the pandemic led to significant amounts of stress, anxiety, and depression for everyone. 

According to researchers at the University of Michigan conducting a survey from 977 parents of teens, they reported that 1 in 3 girls (aged 13-19) experienced new or worsening anxiety. Additionally, more parents of adolescent girls observed increased symptoms of depression, anxiety, and worry in their kids than parents of adolescent boys. The increase of social media usage also contributed to comparison and unrealistic expectations that worsened people’s self-esteem and body image, which often led to an increase in disordered eating and exercise habits for many. 

Specifically for adolescent girls, the comparison between before and after the pandemic shows the negative impact it had on adolescent girls’ mental health. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2018, as many as 10 in 100 adolescent girls had an eating disorder. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around 25% of teenage girls displayed depressive symptoms. Of the total teenage population taking antidepressants, nearly two-thirds of them are adolescent girls. Therefore, a significant percentage of adolescent girls did have mental health issues and eating disorders in 2018, before the pandemic. Later studies prove that these issues worsened for many with the pandemic. Because their schedules were disrupted and they had more time at home, many adolescent girls adopted or increased their social media usage. Due to the pandemic lockdown and increased social media usage, the eating and exercise habits and in adolescent girls worsened. We can see how worsened eating and exercise habits would impact the mental health and self-esteem of adolescent girls. 

How social media usage affects the body image of young girls?

A research review that examined social media and body image concerns examined that increased social media use leads to more negative body image in young men and women. It specifically shows that appearance comparisons are the direct and important link between the usage of social media and negative body image. 

A research report examined the data from different studies. It showed the correlation between the usage of Facebook and the internalization of thin-ideal media. The study also reports that spending more time on Facebook/Myspace is associated with higher levels of body dissatisfaction and thin-idealization in adolescent girls (ages 14-22). Finally, it showed that elevated appearance exposure, such as posting or viewing, on Facebook was associated with more body dissatisfaction and thin-idealization amongst female high school students as well. 

From this data, we can conclude that heavier usage and interaction on social media such as Facebook is linked to much higher body dissatisfaction. Due to the increase of global social media and internet usage during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, we can see how the increase negatively impacted young girls. On many social media platforms, many users tend to edit, photoshop, or alter their photos in order to achieve an “ideal photo”. This is because of the abundant access to photoshop and editing apps online. This allows influencers and other social media public figures to alter their photos to make themselves look more “thin”, “attractive”, or “likable”. Too often, young girls compare themselves to unrealistic social media photos that they are convinced are the norm, and as a result, they feel depressed and dissatisfied when they don’t fit into those norms. Additionally, because young girls are at such a vulnerable age where societal influences can have a strong impact on them for life, these factors are already leaving a destructive impact that will last a long time. 

A study that surveyed 144 girls between the ages of 14-18 years old in the Netherlands and the impact normal and retouched Instagram photos had on their body image proved that the manipulated Instagram photos directly led to lower body image, specifically in those with higher social comparison tendencies. The manipulated photos were also rated more positively than the normal ones. 

This study randomly exposed participants to either 10 original Instagram photos or 10 manipulated photos. Afterward, the participants completed a survey containing various questions regarding their own self-esteem and their opinions about the photos they saw. Regarding the participants’ self-esteem, the study showed that on a scale from 0-6, girls with higher social comparison tendency that were shown manipulated photos had the lowest body image of 3.7. The data shows that 63 participants showed a lower tendency to make social comparisons, and 81 showed a higher tendency to make social comparisons. The participants also said in the survey that they could identify the manipulated photos better than they could identify the original photos. 

From this data, we can conclude that exposure to digitally manipulated photos in adolescent girls, especially those with higher social comparison tendencies, will lead to lower body image in the girls. This is because the participants rate the manipulated photos in the study “more desirable” than the natural photos. Additionally, the data also proves that the majority of the participants could tell that the manipulated photos were manipulated. This shows that the participants are aware of the photos manipulation, yet they still have the tendency to compare themselves to the fake photos. Because manipulated photos are so commonly seen in social media, and the media in general, those with higher social comparison tendencies naturally continue to compare themselves and alter their own images in order to fit into what is deemed “desirable”. As a result, the girls are left stuck with lower body image, which has led and will lead to unhealthy responses, such as depression, over-exercising, and/or disordered eating. 

How did the pandemic impact the eating and exercise habits of adolescent girls?

A study done in Australia compared those with eating disorders to the general population regarding their eating and exercise habits during the pandemic. This study launched a survey on April 1, 2020, in Australia to 5,469 participants, 180 of those self-reporting previous eating disorder history, to determine the changes in eating and exercise behaviors in people during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Between both groups, the groups with the pre-existing eating disorders and the group without pre-existing eating disorders, both groups showed an increase in disordered eating during the lockdown period. The eating disorder group showed an increase in pre-existing behaviors, and the regular group developed disordered eating habits as well. The data is divided into three main groups, the general population, eating disorder, and the anorexia nervosa subgroup.

In total, all three categories reported an overall increase in restricting habits amongst those with previous eating disorders and a slight increase in those without them. For binging, the eating disorder group and general population group both showed an overall increase in bingeing of 35%, while the anorexia nervosa subgroup reported 21% of the participants with an increase in binging habits. Exercise trends are similar for all three groups, there is a significant percentage of the population showing an increase, no difference, and less exercise. For the eating habits reports, none of the categories showed a significant percentage of the population reporting a decrease (<14%), but all of the exercising categories did. 

This study proves that due to the lockdown, those with previous eating disorders increased their disordered eating habits. Additionally, those without previous eating disorders developed disordered eating habits. There could be many reasons for this. For many, the additional time spent in quarantine left them with the time to think about eating/restricting and act on their thoughts. Another factor was the unstable and rapid changes throughout the pandemic. No one knew what the world was going to look like in a few weeks, let alone a few months, and this uncertainty led to lots of stress for many. Another factor of the pandemic was the financial and emotional uncertainty. Many feared losing jobs, housing, food, schooling, and loved ones due to COVID-19 as well. This additional stress may have led to bad coping mechanisms, like obsessing over eating, and exercise habits for the need to feel control over their lives. 

A study conducted in the UK explored how the COVID-19 lockdown influences the eating habits and body image of adolescent girls. 

There are five different categories for the survey data, and participants would rank how well they thought they fit with the categories on a scale of “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”. The participants were divided into three groups for each category, no (previous) diagnosis, other diagnoses, and eating disorder diagnosis. The first set of data from the survey responses is regarding “difficulty to regulate/control eating”. According to the data, a majority of all three groups said that they agree with the statement. The second category was “more preoccupied with food and eating”. The majority of all three groups also said that they agree with this statement. The next two categories are “exercising more” and “thinking about exercise more”. A significant percentage of each of the groups said that they agree and strongly agree with both statements. The last category is “more concerned about the way I look”. A significant percentage of all three groups said they agree with this statement as well. 

Overall, the data shows that the participants with an alternate diagnosis or an eating disorder had greater difficulty with their relationships with eating, exercise, and body image. At the same time, the people that had no previous mental or ED-related diagnosis reported an increase in negative relationships with eating and exercise during the lockdown. This proves that the lockdown did have a directly negative effect on many different types of people, those with and without a mental diagnosis. While everyone was on lockdown stuck in their homes, many people had lots of spare time on their hands. Specifically for those with an eating disorder/other mental diagnoses, they obsessed over food, exercise, and body image more than they would have when they were busy with their normal lives. Those with pre-existing eating disorders dealt with increased disordered eating habits, more so than the general population and even those with other mental disorders. 

The rapid and unreliable changes in our lifestyles also contributed to increased anxiety amongst many. The fear of losing one’s job, loved ones, or one’s own life during the lockdown was incredibly stressful, which oftentimes led to harmful coping habits like disordered eating or over-exercising. 

Additionally, during the lockdown, there was an overall trend of increased social media usage. This is understandable, given that the main form of communication while in lockdown was through technology/social media. However, the concentrated exposure to misleading/glamorized images may have led people to partake in over-exercising and disordered eating habits which overall, may have worsened their mental and physical health. 

Moving forward, there are many things we can do to help those struggling with disordered eating, body image, and exercise issues if we go back into lockdown again, or even if we don’t. We can help make social media a more safe and real place for everyone. Reminding ourselves that we should not compare ourselves to social media photos is really important. The reality is, we don’t know where these photos came from, they could be photoshopped, edited, and/or posed to look “better”. Additionally, choosing to follow influencers and content creators on social media that don’t promote harmful eating and exercise habits, and blocking/reporting those that do is a great and simple way to prevent being exposed to these harmful ideas. 

If we ever go back into a lockdown again, we cannot control the outside world, but we can control how it impacts us. Trying to cope with tough events using healthier coping mechanisms, such as exercising normally or going for walks outside, is a great way to deal with any stress or anxiety. It is important to look out for ourselves and others during these difficult times, and we must remind ourselves that it is okay to not be functioning at our best because these are not normal circumstances. 

There are many factors that may have contributed to adolescent girls developing/worsening their habits during the lockdown. These factors include dramatic lifestyle changes, stress, previous eating disorders, and mental health issues, excessive social media usage, and additional time spent being stuck inside. All of these factors may have contributed to low self-esteem, body image, eating disorders, and poor mental health in adolescent girls, and many are still dealing with the lasting effects of these issues today. 


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About the author

Grace Julian

Grace is currently a Junior at the Episcopal Academy. She enjoys learning about history, psychology, and political science, helps run her school’s political blog, and is a leader of the community service executive board. In her free time, she enjoys playing water polo and reading.