In the world of adolescents, the gym has become a playground for teens like Mike, a 14-year-old from upstate New York. At 13, he ventured into his school’s weight room and fell in love with working out, finding that it made him feel better about himself. But it also exacerbated his perception of physical imperfections. “I hated the fact that I was so skinny and wanted to improve myself,” says Mike, who sought solace in YouTube to discover effective methods for bulking up, ultimately joining a gym with his friends.
Mike’s story is not unique among teenage boys, with nearly a third (29.2%) actively trying to gain muscle, according to a recent study. This trend has raised concerns among parents, who are witnessing their sons follow similar paths, all with the aspiration of attaining the ideal physique.
A mother from New York City recounts her 14-year-old son’s journey from being “too skinny” to venturing into a local gym with his friends. While she appreciates his shift towards fitness over sedentary activities like video games, she soon began to worry. Her concerns were compounded when she noticed that her son and his friends were exchanging shirtless selfies, constantly watching bodybuilders on TikTok, and seeking money for merchandise and protein powders endorsed by fitness influencers. She also expressed concerns about potential injuries resulting from workouts not tailored for teenagers.
Now a member of the school’s football team, her son still grapples with body image concerns. While he follows a healthy diet, she questions whether it’s healthy for a 14-year-old to be preoccupied with his body image to this extent.
This pattern of behavior in teenage boys has raised concerns among experts, as it can escalate to a condition known as muscle dysmorphia. Sometimes colloquially referred to as “bigorexia,” it involves an obsession with building muscle, even when a person is already muscular. Individuals with muscle dysmorphia may resort to anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing substances in pursuit of their ideal physique. Dr. Jason Nagata, an expert in male eating disorders and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, highlights that disordered eating in males is more common than typically recognized, with 22% of adolescent males engaging in behaviors like taking supplements or steroids to gain muscle.
The pressure exerted by social media plays a significant role in the development of muscle dysmorphia. Dr. Nagata notes that excessive use of Instagram by boys is associated with behaviors like skipping meals, using steroids, and experiencing dissatisfaction with their body image. The increased pressure on individuals to showcase their bodies in an era of social media can lead to extreme consequences, including suicidal ideation.
But the question remains: Is exercise a healthy pursuit for teen boys? Brett Klika, a youth fitness expert and former Olympic trainer, emphasizes the numerous physical and mental health benefits of exercise for teens. He stresses that responsible, guided strength training is entirely safe for teenagers, debunking the myth that it could stunt their growth.
So, when should parents become concerned? Dr. Nagata suggests that parents should look for signs that exercise and dietary habits are causing their children to withdraw from their usual activities or friends, driven by concerns about their appearance. Klika adds that drastic changes in behavior regarding socializing and food should raise a red flag. Monitoring the use of legal muscle-building supplements is also important, as they can serve as a gateway to using anabolic steroids, which pose significant health risks.
Dr. Michael Reichert, a psychologist and author, underscores the importance of paying attention to how teenagers talk about themselves. A focus on willpower, self-improvement, and dissatisfaction with their appearance can indicate a problematic obsession with exercise and diet.
To assist concerned parents, Dr. Nagata recommends open communication with their children about their concerns and, if necessary, seeking professional help. Klika encourages parents to get involved in guiding their children’s workouts by referring to reputable resources or experts. Additionally, educating teens about media literacy, including the use of filters on images and the impact of social media, can help them make informed choices. Finally, Reichert emphasizes the significance of creating a strong foundation of support, openness, and involvement in the parent-child relationship to foster self-acceptance and positive self-esteem.