Technology Provides a New Look at Body Image

Teachers and parents can use virtual worlds to provide teens with the comfort and security to start new, healthy conversations about their looks.

Teachers and parents can use virtual worlds to provide teens with the comfort and security to start new, healthy conversations about their looks.

This article accompanies the feature "Avatars Teach Teens About Self-Image."

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Virtually Real:

Teen Second Life and similar dynamic online tools provide unique ways for kids to literally manipulate, experiment with -- and deeply examine -- their physical images in comparison to the messages bombarding them in the media.

Credit: Teen Second Life

The online virtual world Teen Second Life gives adolescents another dimension through which they can explore issues of identity. Every participant creates his or her own avatar, or virtual alter ego, with easy-to-use design tools that allow them to manipulate every aspect of appearance, from skin and eye color to hairstyle and wardrobe.

Unlike real life, the virtual world allows for low-risk experimentation with no lasting consequences: Click on purple hair. Don't like it? Click back to brunette.

Once they've had time to explore and experiment, teachers can ask students to compare themselves with their avatars using prompts such as the following:

  • How are you and your avatar alike?
  • How do you differ?
  • Why did you make those choices?
  • How did the media (or your friends' opinions) influence your thinking?
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Credit: Teen Second Life

A Safe Space for Serious Issues

Avatars can communicate with one another via texting in Teen Second Life. Students may feel freer to express their ideas using a computer screen than they would speaking directly to their classmates.

The teacher can save these chats to create an artifact for future reflection. Student comments may also indicate the need for additional learning activities or individual follow-up about more serious issues, such as eating disorders or depression.

Small-Group Support

The teacher can break up the students into small groups, called pods, within the Teen Second Life environment. A special feature allows pods to virtually take off into space. This feature is not only fun, it also creates a sense of privacy that bolsters small-group dynamics and reinforces trust and respect among peers, encouraging them to share their thoughts.

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Credit: Teen Second Life

Make It Real

After they practice trusting one another and giving peer support in Teen Second Life, students typically bring the same good habits into their real-world conversations. This virtually acquired respect, peer support, and trust help to build self-esteem, the key to helping kids thrive during adolescence.

Suzie Boss is coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. She also blogs for Edutopia.org.

This article originally published on 5/27/2009

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