Kids who get discouraged by idealized athletic bodies on social media may end up dropping out of sports, a small study suggests.

In a preliminary study of 70 kids who played — or used to play — sports, researchers found that some had quit because they thought they didn’t have the “right” body for the activity. And most got that idea from media images, including TikTok and Instagram posts.

Experts said the findings add to evidence that unrealistic, often “filtered” or “edited,” images on social media can make some kids feel bad about their own bodies.

And in the case of kids who play sports, the study suggests, those feelings could translate into action: quitting.

That outcome would be “heartbreaking,” said researcher Dr. Cassidy Foley Davelaar, considering all that kids can gain from participating in sports.

It benefits their physical health, she said, and helps them form friendships, build confidence and resilience, and more.

Sports should “be inclusive of all body sizes and shapes,” said Foley Davelaar, a sports medicine physician at Nemours Children’s Health in Orlando, Fla.

She is scheduled to present the findings Sunday at a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in Washington, D.C. Studies released at meetings are generally considered preliminary until they are published in a peer-reviewed journal.

While this study was small, it aligns with other research tying social media to kids’ mental health concerns, including poor body image. And parents are taking note: A recent Harris Poll/Nationwide Children’s Hospital survey found that half of U.S. parents with kids younger than 18 felt their child’s mental health had suffered during the past year due to social media.

Erin McTiernan, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s in Columbus, Ohio, said kids can easily fall into the trap of unknowingly comparing themselves to unrealistic — often heavily filtered or edited — images of faces and bodies on social media.

Some kids, McTiernan said, can brush it off, especially if they have positive real-life activities and relationships that have helped them build self-esteem. But not all kids can do that, she said.

McTiernan, who was not involved in the new study, said that while it was small, it brings up an important issue: How often do kids give up a healthy activity because of the body images they see on social media?

“Often, what kids are seeing is the ‘best of the best’ — the elite athletes,” McTiernan pointed out. “Or they’re seeing adults, and of course they don’t look like them.”

Beyond that, no one needs to have an athletic physique to play and enjoy sports, both McTiernan and Foley Davelaar said.

The study involved 70 kids, ages 8 to 18, recruited from local athletic organizations or sports medicine clinics. All were either currently playing sports or had in the past.

Of kids who’d quit, the main reasons were poor body image, along with issues with coaches and competitive pressure. Among kids who’d quit because they thought they “didn’t look right,” about two-thirds said they often compared themselves with images in the media and on social media.

Overall, the study found, girls were much more likely to have quit sports than boys: Over 35% had, compared with 10% of boys. Girls also tended to have more body image concerns, with close to half saying they “looked worse than the ideal.”

Foley Davelaar said coaches have a key role to play, since they have a “huge influence in these kids’ lives.” They can emphasize skill-building, teamwork, fun and other aspects of sports that have nothing to do with winning or losing, she said.

Parents can do the same thing, McTiernan said. She also emphasized the importance of “modeling” a healthy attitude toward physical appearance.

“Be mindful of how you talk about your own body in front of your kids,” she said.

As for social media, she said, it’s not realistic to ban it from your teenager’s life.

But parents can establish time limits and other rules around it. One of the most important things, McTiernan said, is to make sure kids have plenty of “real-life experiences” — including sports and other activities, and face-to-face time with friends and family.

Parents should also have a sense of what kids are viewing on social media and how it makes them feel, according to McTiernan.

“Ask them who they’re following, why they follow them,” she said. “Find out how viewing a social media platform makes them feel afterward.”

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on social media and mental health.

SOURCES: Cassidy Foley Davelaar, DO, orthopedics and sports medicine, Nemours Children’s Health, Orlando, Fla.; Erin McTiernan, PsyD, pediatric psychologist, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, Ohio; presentation, American Academy of Pediatrics meeting, Washington, D.C., Oct. 22, 2023