The Young and Plastic Surgery Hungry

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Peter Dazeley / Photographer's Choice / Getty

Perhaps it's fallout from television programming such as Nip/Tuck or Dr. 90210 or reruns of Extreme Makeover, but Internet data shows that younger adults have become the primary audience obsessed with altering their personal appearance. Once the domain of the well-to-do female in her fifties, plastic surgery has become the obsession of the least affluent segment of younger Internet users.

The recent tragic death of Stephanie Kuleba, an 18-year-old high school cheerleader who died as a result of complications during a breast augmentation surgery, brought our attention to the pursuit of a more "ideal" body amongst teenagers. In fact, search data confirms this phenomenon. One of the most popular sites visited from the search term "plastic surgery" is the official site of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons ( Over 25% of visitors to the site (the largest segment) fell within the 18- to 24-year-old demographic — that's up from 19.6% two years ago.

Plastic surgery has become an American obsession. Checking other markets that Hitwise has data on, such as the U.K. and Australia, the 18- to 24-year-old fascination with plastic surgery is a decidedly U.S. phenomenon.

Looking at other health related sites visited by 18- t 24-year-olds, reveals just how obsessed this age group is with appearance. Unlike their older counterparts who visit sites related to diseases and keeping healthy, younger Internet users flock to sites that dwell on personal appearance, such as those focused on bodybuilding, weight loss and skincare. And definitely plastic surgery.

While surgery-themed television may be driving the interest of a younger audience, one factor appears to be key in tempering appearance-obsessed teens from altering their bodies: the failing U.S. economy.

If we track the trend in searches on topics such as "breast augmentation," "breast implants" or even "plastic surgery," there has been a precipitous decline in all plastic surgery topics over the last year. What's fueling this downturn? It may very well be related to the predominant income group of visitors to cosmetic surgery sites — U.S. households that earn less than $30,000 per year. In fact, if we look at the search patterns around popular surgeries, over the last year the term "cost" is the most commonly appearing qualifier. We see more searches such as "breast implant cost," "plastic surgery cost," and "breast augmentation cost." Checking these same terms in April 2007 reveals that cost sensitivity is a recent phenomenon.

While older demographics continue to search for information on procedures such as face-lifts, liposuction or Botox, it's the younger Internet users who in tough economic times are focusing on improving their outer beauty, albeit at a discount price.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.