The Internet has had a profound impact on how we choose to live our lives.
We now use the Internet for many different purposes, including work, shopping, learning, and entertainment, and there’s no doubt that it has been hugely beneficial.
A lot of us are also using the Internet to communicate with our friends, family, and work colleagues through social networking sites, like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. In fact, nearly 75% of younger adults are active on social media.
Although there are many benefits to using social media, they also pose important risks. In particular, research has shown that increased social media usage is linked to a range of different mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and stress 1Kelly, Y., Zilanawala, A., Booker, C., & Sacker, A. (2018). Social media use and adolescent mental health: Findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. EClinicalMedicine, 6, 59-68.
A lot of clinical, public, and research attention has also been devoted towards understanding the relationship between social media usage and young peoples’ body image.
Unfortunately, social media usage has indeed been strongly linked to body dissatisfaction, and there is speculation that the spike in social media usage in recent years has resulted in an increase in eating disorders and disordered eating 2Mabe, A. G., Forney, K. J., & Keel, P. K. (2014). Do you “like” my photo? Facebook use maintains eating disorder risk. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 47(5), 516-523.
In this article, I’m wanting to dive into the link between social media and body image.
How Social Media Affects Body Image?
Before addressing this question, I think it’s worth touching on the distinct attributes of social media technologies relative to conventional mass media.
Social media differs to conventional media in the following ways.
- Interactivity – users are now both sources and receivers of information.
- Personalisation – text, images, or videos primarily revolve around the self or how one chooses to live his/her life.
- Autonomous –people can choose how active they’d like to be on social media and can decide on what content they put out.
It’s also important to remember that social media allows users to do the following:
- To Photoshop or modify images, videos, or graphics in a way that allows users to present themselves in a better light.
- To receive instantaneous feedback (via “likes”, comments, shares) from others about content put out.
- To filter content that subscribes to unrealistic beauty standards.
All of these characteristics unique to social media can have a profound impact on body image.
The question on how social media affects body image is not an easy one to answer.
Social media influences are complex, and it’s wrong to believe that social media will exert a simple, direct impact on body image concerns.
There appears to be two key variables that explain why social media leads to body image problems.
1. Social Comparisons
Social comparison is arguably the most important reason why social media can lead to body image problems 3Fardouly, J., Diedrichs, P. C., Vartanian, L. R., & Halliwell, E. (2015). Social comparisons on social media: The impact of Facebook on young women’s body image concerns and mood. Body image, 13, 38-45.
Social comparisons that are upwards in nature are the real problem. This occurs when one compares themselves to someone better off than themselves.
In the social media domain, such upward comparisons occur when someone compares themselves to another person who has more followers or who receives more likes, shares, and comments on certain images, posts or videos.
Social comparisons only exert a negative influence on body image for people who already highly value their body weight and shape 4Perloff, R. M. (2014). Social media effects on young women’s body image concerns: Theoretical perspectives and an agenda for research. Sex Roles, 71(11-12), 363-377.
For these people, individuals who compare themselves to others may conclude that they’re not attractive enough and that they may need to change what they look like. It also directly impairs an individual’s sense of self-worth.
This may also explain why people spend a heap of time planning their next selfie or the planning the right pose to capture their “good side” and most attractive self. People usually spend a lot of time editing their selfies, adding filters, taking many selfies before choosing the best one to post, and constantly worrying about the feedback from their followers.
All of these subtle behaviours can greatly impair an individual’s body image.
2. Internalisation of Appearance Ideals
Another variable that can explain why social media leads to body image problems is the internalisation of appearance ideals5Perloff, R. M. (2014). Social media effects on young women’s body image concerns: Theoretical perspectives and an agenda for research. Sex Roles, 71(11-12), 363-377.
This refers to the extent to which an individual buys into the idea that achieving a thin or muscular body will bring forth happiness, success, and wellbeing.
People who use social media and have this belief are at a lot of risk for future body image problems.
This is largely because social media is filled with quotes, videos, and images that reinforce or sets unrealistic beauty standards.
One quote that comes to mind when I think about this is “nothing tastes as good as skinny”.
Exposure to this content just feeds into this belief that beauty equals happiness and worth.
And because these beauty standards portrayed in social media are largely unrealistic, modified, and are an inaccurate representation of life, people often assume that they’re not good or attractive enough.
Using Social Media Safely
It’s not reasonable to ask someone to remove all forms of social media.
As I mentioned, social media is an important tool to help connect with other people all around the world.
Although social media can cause a negative body image, there are a bunch of strategies you can implement to protect against the negative effects of social media.
Here are some strategies to consider if you’re worried about the effects of social media on your body image.
- Unfollow accounts that may be triggering or encouraging comparisons. Try this for a week or two, and document your thoughts, feelings and attitudes. Notice if you’re starting to see a shift in how you see yourself and how critical you are of your own performance.
- Modify the time spent on social media. There appears to be a linear relationship between social media usage and body image problems, such that greater usage is linked to more problems. Try to reduce the total time you spend on social media each day. Track this, and each day reduce this time by 20 minutes.
- Follow feel-good social media pages. It might be worth actively seeking out content that has nothing to do with appearance, exercise, or fitness. Follow pages that post content on positive body image, animals, or even science. You want to try to reduce the amount of exposure to these appearance ideals.
- Become social media literate. Take the time to learn about social media and how it works. The more you understand the workings of social media, including how its manipulated to lock in its audience, the better you’re able to critically judge the information presented to you. This will have a profound impact on how you start to perceive your own body.
Have you got any other strategies that helped you improve your relationship with social media? Let me know in the comments below.
|↑1||Kelly, Y., Zilanawala, A., Booker, C., & Sacker, A. (2018). Social media use and adolescent mental health: Findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. EClinicalMedicine, 6, 59-68|
|↑2||Mabe, A. G., Forney, K. J., & Keel, P. K. (2014). Do you “like” my photo? Facebook use maintains eating disorder risk. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 47(5), 516-523|
|↑3||Fardouly, J., Diedrichs, P. C., Vartanian, L. R., & Halliwell, E. (2015). Social comparisons on social media: The impact of Facebook on young women’s body image concerns and mood. Body image, 13, 38-45|
|↑4, ↑5||Perloff, R. M. (2014). Social media effects on young women’s body image concerns: Theoretical perspectives and an agenda for research. Sex Roles, 71(11-12), 363-377|
Thank you for this ! Having recovered from an Eating Disorder and forever deleting and reinstalling social media, this article was reassuring. In that it’s possible to make social media a safer place, without abstaining. It’s much like moving out of the rigid ideas that can keep you in an eating disorder (in my experience).
Dr Jake Linardon
Thank you for the comment, Amy. I’m glad to hear that it was reassuring. I definitely agree that we need to be more prudent when using social media — there is a lot of potential harmful information out there!