parent opinion

'As a mum of a 12-year-old with a phone, this 3-minute viral ad broke me.'

Content warning: This article includes descriptions of disordered eating that may be distressing to some readers.

There is a crucial moment just 30 seconds into Dove's recent 'Cost of Beauty' ad when 12-year-old Mary unwraps a smartphone as a birthday gift. It's crucial because as parents watching this beautiful young girl on the cusp of her teenage years, we know what is about to happen.

That phone, her gateway to the internet and to 'likes and follows' on social media, is about to change her and her parents' lives in a way that no family ever wants. For the next minute, we watch in horror as we witness this beautiful, smiling child grow into a bewildered teenager with an eating disorder. 

The heartbreaking campaign to highlight teen mental health issues includes real footage captured by Mary and her family as she becomes increasingly unwell. There are Mary's selfies, videos of her posing in the mirror and handwritten diary entries of her weight loss goals that show her trying to emulate the toxic beauty standards on social media.

A relatable clip shows Mary shouting at her mum after she asks her to get off the phone, and later there's an image of Mary's eating disorder clinic admission paperwork and her tiny intubated arm in a hospital bed. 

Watch: The 'cost of beauty' ad by Dove. The post continues below. 

Video via Mamamia.

I have a 12-year-old son and, like Mary, he also recently received the gift of a smartphone to help his transition to high school. I wept as I watched the devastating images and home videos of Mary, thinking not only of her but also my two boys.

It broke my heart, as well as the hearts of millions of other parents who watched and then shared the Dove ad online, to see how quickly Mary slid into this nightmare. 

One such mum is Deb*, a mother of three girls – 15-year-old twins and an 11-year-old. She says that social media is something she worries about.

"Social media scares me, particularly for my 11-year-old daughter, who doesn't have a phone or social media but loves YouTube and is all over TikTok," Deb tells Mamamia.

"I actually think in our family it’s me with the body worries. My twins have very positive body images, they do lots of sports and workout. I have to be careful with my language... I don’t shy away from talking about body image and I say to them I don’t want our chats about eating, exercise and body weight to trigger food or body anxieties. I try to talk about these topics openly without fat-shaming others but also acknowledging that it’s important to be healthy."

Deb says that she is attempting to keep all lines of communication open with body image and social media, especially with her youngest.


"She’s not said anything negative about her body yet so I’ll take the same approach with my twins and keep talking openly, looking out for any signs there might be food or body issues.

"I don’t have any restrictions on my twins' phones or accounts and I don’t check them. We talk about what they have access to and I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I trust them.

"I know I need to monitor my youngest more closely and I am dreading her getting a phone. I will definitely set restrictions and check her phone. I think it’s knowing your children (as individuals) and having those conversations regularly."

My youngest son, who is many years from phone ownership, still holds my hand and chatters as we walk to school. I wish I could freeze this beautiful phase as I know it won't last much longer. My eldest son is currently happy and well, but he is hyper-aware of his appearance and it is something we talk about regularly too.

I stealthily survey him as he scrolls YouTube or messages his friends (he doesn't yet have any social media accounts) and search for signs of unhappiness.

No parent wants their child's story to be that of Mary's, and while the ad made me want to throw his phone in the bin, it is more complicated than that.

He uses his phone for his school timetable, for staying in touch with friends, to check the times of buses and to check his cricket scores after a match. He called me from it recently to pick him up when his mountain bike seized up on a ride with friends.


The problem – in Mary's case at least – was less about her phone and more about the addictive nature of social media apps, and the toxic beauty standards that pervade every corner.

The links between social media and low self-esteem are clear. 

The report by the Dove Self-Esteem Project, which surveyed more than 1,000 girls aged 10-17, revealed that one in two girls says toxic beauty advice on social media causes low self-esteem.

According to Dove's research, two out of three girls spend an hour a day on social media.

While four in five girls feel they can be their most authentic selves on social media, more than seven in 10 girls agree that spending less time on social media would be better for their self-esteem.

Listen to Mamamia's podcast for parents of teens, Help I Have A Teenager. The post continues below.

The findings of the Dove report support Deb's idea that open conversations with your kids are a great start, but that parents can't fight this issue all by themselves. 

Technology presents so many challenges for parents, kids and communities in 2023 and we need to hold the big tech companies, who make this addictive technology so freely available to our kids, to account.


In the US, Dove is working with Common Sense Media and Parents Together Action to revise the Kids Online Safety Act. They want to challenge the addictive design features and algorithms that keep kids online for too long, potentially exposing them to harmful content and damaging their mental health.

We desperately need legislation to catch up with the advancements in technology to help us better support kids like Mary. Dove's campaign is a great way to bring global attention to this issue, but we need to demand more action now. The Heads Up Alliance is one such community group in Australia campaigning to delay giving kids smartphones and social media access. New South Wales Premier Chris Minns' announcement in March that there will be a total phone ban in schools from the end of 2023, is another step towards seeing phones as an unhealthy distraction for our kids.

Back in the US and in Mary's case, there is a curious twist. 

Mary is in recovery from her eating disorder but she is back online in a big way. 

Now in her early twenties, Mary has built a career on social media making and selling crocheted toys and speaking out about her mental health and ongoing recovery. 


She began knitting as part of her therapy and then selling her homemade products via her business, Purple Pear, when she was just 14. She gave a TEDx talk on her journey and now has hundreds of thousands of followers across all social media platforms.

As part of an industry that once made her so sick, I hope she stays well and happy.

Laura Jackel is Mamamia's Family Writer. For links to her articles, follow her on Instagram and TikTok.

Feature Image: Dove/YouTube/Canva.

*While Deb is known to Mamamia, her name has been changed for privacy reasons.

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