How the rise of Instagram and TikTok fitness gymfluencers became a ‘danger’ for young boys

“Alright dumba**, welcome to lesson two here at fat f*** university.”So begins one of the countless fleshy blurs of locally-produced fitness content pumped algorithmically into the feeds of Australian Instagram, TikTok and Facebook users.It’s the sort of engagement-baiting approach that yields viewers and followers — designed to push men out of some apparent masculine malaise and into retaking control of their body and masculinity, usually via paid workout programs, products or supplements. It’s also the type of content increasingly filtering into the phones of teenage boys. Meme culture is a big part of fitness and gym content.(Supplied: Instagram)While there is a more developed conversation about idealised images on social media and body image pressures on young girls, experts say research is less advanced when it comes to boys.”I think boys are now objectifying themselves like never before and we do need to be really concerned,” said Danielle Rowland, Head of Prevention at national eating disorder charity the Butterfly Foundation.”The intensity of training advice, nutrition and misinformation is greater than ever.”Feeds serving up different diet When Anthony Lee started high school in regional Victoria six years ago, social media had a different feel to it.”In Year 7, it was just basically a way to keep up with your mates,” he said. Anthony Lee says social media came to mean something very different by the end of high school.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)By the time he finished Year 12 last year, the feeds of his classmates had changed. So too, the surrounding culture.”There is a growing problem with men having that feed of perfect body content,” he said.”There are people who will see influencers on social media and say, ‘I’ve got to have bigger arms, toned legs, I got to have calves the size of mountains’.” Engaging with fitness content online will generally see a user receive more and more of that type of content.(Supplied: Instagram)Linger on one Instagram reel showing off a set of dumbbell exercises, and you’ll likely get five more videos zeroing in on how to get “boulder shoulders”, or some protein-heavy diet advice from a shirtless influencer.Josh Ward travels to schools in Sydney and around regional NSW, hearing from young boys as part of his work as a facilitator for men’s mental health organisation Tomorrow Man.”There’s been a huge jump in the last two to three years in the amount of boys opening up in workshops around their body,” he said.  Tomorrow Man facilitator Josh Ward runs school workshops around ideas of masculinity and mental health.(Supplied: Josh Ward)Mr Ward believes there’s no coincidence it’s occurred alongside a “big spike” in the amount of fitness and gym influencer content turning up in their feeds. “If someone was in school walking around with a fitness mag in their pocket, bringing it out every recess or lunch, you’d think ‘that is some strange behaviour’. But that’s what [teenage boys] are celebrating now,” he said.”The danger for young people is they don’t realise they’re actually the pioneer generation in terms of that exposure.”In the last five years there’s been a crazy amount of fitness content, but that’s just what they’ve always been exposed to, so they don’t realise how strange it is.”‘It creates a false sense of the world’For many teenage boys on the path through puberty, working out in gyms has long represented an accelerated part of the journey into manhood.Images of muscle-ripped celebrities and athletes serving as aesthetic inspiration, if not an unattainable physical ideal, is nothing new either.  Going to the gym can be an important and healthy part of puberty for teenage boys.(ABC News: John Gunn)But it’s the nature of that exposure — the type of content and the saturation of it — that has experts concerned. “It’s that ‘in-your-face, all-the-time’ aspect of it,” said Associate Professor Ivanka Prichard from Flinders University.”It’s seeing something on Instagram when we’re perhaps not in that frame of mind, making a comparison to this really fit person and have that influence the way we might feel about ourselves.”We’re fed a whole range of things through those algorithms that we would never have had exposure to before and would never have sought out.” Experts report seeing digitally altered and AI-generated images in fitness content.(Supplied: Instagram)Multiple experts the ABC spoke to reported seeing digitally-altered and even AI-generated images of supposedly naturally-fit bodies on social media.Ms Prichard, a former fitness instructor whose research sits at the intersection of psychology, social media and exercise science, believes the constant barrage of perfectly sculpted bodies could destabilise the mental health of some teenage boys.”For young people shaping their identity, it creates a false sense of the world,” she said.Of the estimated 1.1 million Australians who had an eating disorder last year, one in three were male, according to the Butterfly Foundation.For over a decade, Scott Griffiths has studied body image and psychological disorders, with a recent focus on male eating disorders, body dysmorphia and particularly, muscle dysmorphia.”Muscle dysmorphia is a psychological disorder. It’s not just being a gym junkie,” said Mr Griffiths, an associate professor and lead of the Physical Appearance Research Team at the University of Melbourne.”It’s a preoccupation. You are always thinking about food, training, your appearance. It’s on your mind all the time.” Jokes about mental health are regular among gym memes.(Supplied: Instagram)According to the Butterfly Foundation, people aged between 15 and 19 are 2.7 times more likely to experience an eating disorder. It makes social media an animating and potentially potent driver.”It can reinforce in your mind that your worth is very closely tied to, if not wholly dependent upon, your appearance, which is not the basis for healthy self-esteem,” Dr Griffiths said. “[TikTok and Instagram] are more likely to feature influencer bodies you are extremely unlikely to be able to achieve without performance enhancement, or a level of commitment to dieting and exercise that would overcome most people.”Blurred lines at the gymJoshie Glover, 27, has seen just how profoundly positive a gym environment can be for young boys. In his work at young men’s mental health charity Man Cave, he estimates he’s facilitated over 170 school workshops of more than 5,550 students.In that time, Mr Glover has witnessed countless examples of the physical and mental health benefits that a gym can provide, as well as the connection between mates working out. In Man Cave workshops, young boys are increasingly raising body image concerns.(Supplied: Man Cave)It’s when those workouts veer toward the obsessive that problems emerged.”With gym habits, it’s very blurred lines, which is why it’s quite insidious,” he said.In Man Cave workshops, boys often speak about being bullied over their weight, only to reframe it as a positive.”A lot of them will say, ‘I’m actually really grateful that I’ve been teased about how [fat] I was, because it motivated me to get to go to the gym and get big’,” Mr Glover said.”The line of when it goes from a positive social thing, motivating each other, doing something physically, to slipping into a pressured, coercive kind of motivation by ridicule, it’s really blurred.”Andrew Tate and the problem with ‘discipline’Another online fixation that routinely comes up in workshops is Andrew Tate, the disgraced misogynist content creator currently awaiting a criminal trial on allegations of rape, human trafficking and forming a criminal gang to sexually exploit women.Mr Glover said there was an uneasy through line between the much-discussed appeal of Tate, who used to be a professional kickboxer, and the growing obsession with social media gym culture. A police officer escorts Andrew Tate from the court in Romania in March 2024.(AP: Andreea Alexandru)”Many boys are so confused as to what it means to be a man, who are the role models?” he said.”One thing they’ve really latched onto is that a man is disciplined. Whenever you ask, ‘what’s the good bits about Andrew Tate?’, they’ll say, ‘he’s disciplined’.”The main way that discipline can play out is attending to your physical body. There’s not really much desire for discipline in schoolwork or discipline in any other areas, it’s manifested in the gym.” The irony that past generations have decried a lack of discipline in today’s kids is not lost on Mr Glover — but he said the dangers lie in its interpretation.”The toxic, maybe unhealthy, part of it is that there are so many different kinds of bodies that a teenage boy would have, and they’re all being channelled into this one kind of mould of what the body of a disciplined person looks like,” he said.The influencer credibility gapWhere parents and teachers may try, often in vain, to ward young boys away from specific individuals like Tate, telling them to ignore an entire social media ecosystem is even harder. Fitness influencers and gym content creators have argued they are merely promoting healthy physical habits and dieting advice.Some accounts function almost as communities of collective support for people trying to reach their goals, while many frame workout content through the lens of positive mental health. Not all influencers are qualified to give diet and health advice.(ABC News: Mary Lloyd)Recent studies co-authored by Associate Professor Ivanka Prichard have analysed the content and credibility of fitness accounts on Instagram and TikTok.The research found two-thirds of the accounts audited on Instagram “lacked credibility or contained potentially harmful or unhealthy content”, while exercise and diet advice promoted on TikTok was often at odds with national health guidelines.  Fitness influencer Brian Johnson, known as “Liver King”, belatedly admitted to steroid use.(Supplied)In late 2022, US fitness content creator Brian “Liver King” Johnston suffered an ignominious fall from grace after admitting to spending tens of thousands of dollars on steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.The Liver King had previously maintained his improbable physique was the result of hard workouts and eating raw meat, and that others should aspire to do the same.Ms Prichard recommended seeking out content creators with relevant qualifications or failing that, the accounts of athletes and those who emphasise physical performance over aesthetics.”From a user perspective, red flags are anything that has quite a lot of skin on display, is sexualised or is hyper-focussed on the appearance of the body,” she said.”I would definitely encourage parents to also just talk to young people about what they are viewing on social media.” Using the gym to tamp down on mental health problems is a common joke online.(Supplied)At a recent barbecue, Danni Rowlands bent an ear toward a conversation her 10-year-old son was having with a few boys his age. “They were looking at each other’s calves and deciding who had the veins popping out,” she said.”They ranged from 10 to 12. One was saying ‘here’s my six-pack’.”Ms Rowlands, who played netball at an elite level and has her own lived experience with eating disorders, knows an obsessive focus on physique can affect mental health, school participation and relationships with friends and family.”I think it gets minimised and oversimplified — that it’s just a teenage thing — but there’s a real danger for a young person’s self-esteem, their identity, their mental health,” she said.”It’s not wrong to want to take care of ourselves, but the pursuit of perfection, because we think that is the answer to all of our problems, is really setting ourselves up in a negative way to move through adulthood.”What do you want to know more about when it comes to raising and supporting teens? Email [email protected] 6h ago6 hours agoWed 15 May 2024 at 9:52pm, updated 5h ago5 hours agoWed 15 May 2024 at 10:52pm

Recommended For You