Malleability in Mediated Ideals

Project MIMIc: A project to understand the role of media in boys’ and girls’ lives, 2020-2025

ERC interview by Prof. Laura Vandenbosch

“Do young people mimic the lifestyles they encounter on their social media feed and in entertainment fiction, and how do they cope with the omnipresence of smartphones in their life (i.e., digital well-being)?” is at the core of the research conducted by the MIMIc team in Belgium, France, and Slovenia.

In the first set of studies, we explored the messages portrayed in entertainment media, particularly in popular music and in the social media posts of celebrities and influencers. After examining 4117 popular music lyrics, we found that popular artists tend to showcase their luxurious lifestyles, with 46% of the lyrics featuring references to expensive cars. Additionally, 24% of these lyrics depicted how hard the artists work, and therefore, are deserving of obtaining such expensive goods. On social media, based on our examination of 1256 Instagram posts and 2936 stories, we found that celebrities, influencers, and athletes share the political issues they care about in 8% of their posts/stories. Moreover, over half of their content portray the (moral) values these famous figures find important in life. These values often revolve around caring for and being loyal to their loved ones, achieving and showing their many successes, and indulging in enjoyable and fun activities. These studies were a first step towards understanding the messages portrayed by youths’ role models through various media.

Data donation studies: Exploring the content posted by adolescents

In the second set of studies, we asked 507 Belgian, French, and Slovenian adolescents to donate their own content on three social media platforms: Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat. In the 2098 recent posts, stories and ‘bios’ shared by the participants, we found that the narrative of success often manifested through appearance posts—highlighting ‘being pretty’—or through portrayals of their lifestyles, emphasizing their nice activities. Such messages appeared in 33% of their profile/bio pictures and in 58 % of their most recent posts. In sharing these ideals, youths portray (their) life as exciting and fun. In addition, we observed that four in ten adolescents had recently posted visuals showing their body attractiveness. These tendencies differed across genders, as girls showed three times as much sexualization in their social media data compared to boys. Finally, half of both boys and girls had recently showcased themselves in stereotypically masculine or feminine poses on social media pictures. These ‘data donation studies’ were necessary to unravel how youth are portraying themselves on their social media.

Longitudinal studies: Exploring the long-term relationships between adolescents’ media use and adolescents’ lives

In the third set of studies, we surveyed three times in one year 2721 adolescents (607 in Belgium, 868 in France, and 1246 in Slovenia) aged 12 to 18 to understand the effects of consuming popular music lyrics, TV shows, and social media content on their emerging identity over time. By surveying their activities for one year, this research can help to understand whether young people mimic the lifestyles they encounter on these different entertainment media formats. Please note that part of the analyses for these studies are still ongoing. We describe below some available findings.

In line with the results mentioned above in which the narrative of ‘success’ and ‘the perfect life’ is omnipresent in both role models’ and adolescents’ media messages, a first study revealed that adolescents who strongly strive for perfection see more of such messages (i.e., social media posts of others who show how perfect they are) and vice versa, that adolescents who see more of such messages are also adolescents experiencing a pressure to be perfect. Around 40 % of adolescents from the three countries indicated (very) frequently encountering positive social media content, such as images of flawless appearances or ideal lifestyles. Simultaneously, we found that up to 61 % of adolescents feel pressure to be perfect in everything they do. Of these, 38% reported feeling this pressure due to the (perceived) high expectations from their surroundings, including society, peers, and parents.

Next, a second study showed that adolescents who listen to songs from artists who claim that their success is due to their hard work do not necessarily adopt or relate to such beliefs themselves. It seems that only certain groups of adolescents mimic these success beliefs promoted in music. To illustrate, we observed that while 33% of Belgian adolescents believe that hard work is important for reaching their own goals, only 2% see it as essential for explaining others’ achievements or hardships. Still, those messages are quite popular as 12% of adolescents have favorite songs with lyrics containing messages about hard work as a necessary means to succeed.

In another study, we explored how influencers, celebrities, and athletes on social media can inspire adolescents to become involved citizens by boosting their confidence to participate in political and social causes. For many adolescents, being politically or socially active has become another ideal they feel they should aspire to. Yet our analysis of 415 French adolescents revealed that while 33% of adolescents are well interested in politics, only 15% feel confident in their ability to participate politically. We also found that a higher presence of political content shared by their favorite role models on social media was associated with increased feeling of empowerment to become active citizens in adolescents. Such political involvement from their role models remain rare, as 70% of the adolescents indicated that their favorite person never or rarely discussed societal issues.

A fourth study about digital well-being among Slovenian youth found that one in three youths think smartphone use decreases their task efficiency, productivity, and academic achievement. One in four youths feel they struggle in the emotional domain while using a smartphone and one in six youths think smartphone use disrupts their communication and relationships with friends. A fifth study found that 86% of youths have positive experiences with online communication and digitally flourish but they differ in how they develop these positive experiences with online communication. One group of youngsters (51%) perceived high digital flourishing and remained flourishing over time. Another group (49%) perceived less digital flourishing and their feeling of being in control over their online communication decreased over time. Youngsters who are more digitally flourishing were more likely to have digitally skilled parents and parents who talked with their children about online content and considered the child’s opinion in these conversations.

Diary studies: Exploring the short-term relationships between adolescents’ media use and adolescents’ lives

Finally, in October 2023, daily surveys were organized to understand better adolescents’ day-to-day interactions with social and entertainment media. In this study, we monitored 278 Belgian, 150 French, and 344 Slovenian youngsters. Analyses are still ongoing.

To find out more about the research, READ more details in the parents and participants’ section.

Meet the Group



Laura Vandenbosch

Associate professor at the School for Mass Communication Research

International collaborators


Kaitlin Fitzgerald

Post-doctoral researcher


Bojana Lobe

Associate professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences (U of Ljubljana)


Caroline Giraudeau

Lecturer at the Department of Psychology (U of Tours)


Kristina Rakinić

PhD student


Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium School for Mass Communication Research (SMCR).
Université de Tours, France Department of Psychology.
Univerza v Ljubljani, Slovenia Faculty of Social Sciences.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 852317)