Motivating young people to be kinder to themselves – and others – on social media

Flinders University researcher Pip Granfield, left, with Year 7 St Ignatius students who have benefited from the Embrace Kids program.

Unrealistic expectations about what our bodies should look like – whether from the media, friends or family –make adults and children of all ages more vulnerable to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and other mental health challenges.

In a new study in Body ImageFlinders University experts assessing the program’s usefulness in classrooms highlight the potential for the film Embrace Kids, directed by 2023 Australian of the Year Taryn Brumfitt, to achieve large-scale improvements in body image in young people aged 9-14 years.

“The study gives promising preliminary evidence in support of the broad impact and reach of Embrace Kids and points to its potential as a resource that could be safely delivered at scale, at minimal cost,” says Philippa Granfield, from the Embrace Impact Lab at Flinders University.

“Young people, as well as the adults who accompanied them to screenings of Embrace Kids, reported improved body image and self-compassion after watching the film. It motivated viewers of all ages to be kinder to themselves and others in social media.

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“Importantly, it did all of this without making viewers more concerned about their appearance, which is sometimes a concern people have about body image interventions.”

An Embrace Impact Lab evaluation of the Embrace Kids Classroom Program is under way at 20 schools in South Australia and Queensland, thanks to support from Flinders Foundation for the Years seven-eight study and Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation for the roll-out in Years five-six.

Classroom program has potential to give message wider reach

Associate Professor Ivanka Prichard, who co-founded the Embrace Impact Lab at Flinders University, says The Embrace Kids Classroom Program – developed with support from Little Heroes Foundation – extended the film’s messages, and has the potential to reach even more young people.

The program aligns is aligned with the Australian Curriculum and includes five lessons that each begin with a brief clip from the Embrace Kids film (G rated) followed by interactive, evidence-based learning activities

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“Future research will explore how the Classroom Program and film might work together to produce enduring benefits to body image and set young people up for positive relationships with their bodies, before body image concerns take hold,” says Associate Professor Prichard.

Embrace Kids stemmed from the success of the first film, for adults, which was also directed by Taryn Brumfitt, who says the new Flinders research confirms the Embrace Kids film is “engaging as well as safe and effective”.

“After releasing Embrace, a film that has been seen by millions of people in more than 190 countries, the ‘number one’ piece of feedback we received was that people wished they had seen this when they were younger,” says Ms Brumfitt, co-executive director of The Embrace Collective.

“This new research is exciting because we knew we had made a film that was engaging and educating kids without them even knowing it! Having this sort of evidence proves that this film is as safe and effective as we had intended it to be, and it’s out there doing good in the world.”

Embrace Kids research advisor Dr Zali Yager adds: “We brought together all of the research on ‘what works’ to help young people feel better about their bodies and infused it into the film. It’s great that this evaluation confirms the effectiveness of this approach – not only for young people, but for their grown-ups too.”

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Body image issues one of biggest concerns for today’s young people

John Mannion, Breakthrough chief executive, says body image issues are “one of the major challenges facing young people today”.

“Children’s mental health and eating disorders are a paramount focus to Breakthrough … so we are proud to work closely with Flinders University’s Embrace Impact Lab to help determine how we can integrate and reinforce positive body image concepts effectively,” says Mr Mannion.

“By fostering understanding and promoting positive self-perception from an early age, we can make a significant difference in the mental wellbeing of our children, setting them up for a healthier, happier future.”

Ross Verschoor, Flinders Foundation Executive Director, says there is an “urgent need to help Australian children embrace their body image and overcome the issues which negatively affect their physical health and mental well-being”.

“The Flinders Foundation is committed to helping South Australian children get the best start in life so they can realise their full potential as healthy, happy adults,” Mr Verschoor says.

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“That’s why we’re proud to work with Flinders University researchers and The Embrace Collective to tackle much-needed research so we can minimise young people’s lifetime risk of issues like eating disorders, depression and anxiety.”

The article, ‘A pre-post evaluation of the impact of the Embrace Kids film on children’s and adults’ body image and self-compassion’ (2024) by Philippa Granfield, Eva Kemps and Ivanka Prichard has been published in Body Image (Elsevier) DOI: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2024.101700

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