How social media is impacting body image concerns
- Research at UTS has found a link between engaging in photo activities on social media (viewing, posting and comparing) and having a negative view of your own body.
- How parents can help their children critically evaluate social media and maintain a positive body image in our digital world.
Rachel Cohen is a practicing psychologist at the Black Dog Institute. Her PhD is exploring the relationship between social media use and body image issues in young women. Here, she talks about research she recently published in the journals: Computers in Human Behaviour and Body Image.
Why is this research area important?
From my clinical experience and the emerging research, there is obviously a relationship between social media use and adverse psychological outcomes. But, because social media is not going away anytime soon, and because we also know social media use can also be helpful, I think it’s important to find out what specific aspects of social media use relate to negative body image in young women so we can have a more targeted approach to prevention and intervention.
What are the specific aspects of social media use that relate to body image concerns?
With Facebook we found that engaging in photo activities, (i.e. viewing friends’ photos or updating your own profile picture), was associated with concerns including greater “thin-ideal” internalisation, self-objectification and body dissatisfaction. With Instagram we found that following appearance-focused accounts, (i.e. health and fitness or celebrities like the Kardashians), was related to some negative body image outcomes and disordered eating, as opposed to more neutral things like following a travel account.
It’s important to find out what specific aspects of social media use relate to negative body image in young women so we can have a more targeted approach to prevention and intervention.
Rachel Cohen, PhD Candidate, UTS Graduate School of Health
Why did you decide to study this area?
I became interested in this topic during my undergraduate honours thesis in 2013. At that time social media use was just taking-off and I was noticing women becoming fixated on their Facebook photos and comparing themselves to their friends’ photos. Initially I was interested in comparing Facebook use to traditional media (where research had already shown a negative relationship in terms of appearance-focused images and body image outcomes). I found that people were comparing themselves just as much with the images of their peers on Facebook as they were to conventional models or celebrities in magazines and it was having a similar negative effect in terms of body dissatisfaction, so I continued this research for my Masters thesis and decided to continue down the same track for my PhD.
Are your findings in-line with other research going on in the area?
It’s interesting because, so far, most research has looked at social media use more generally (i.e. total time spent on social media), and while some studies have found an association with body image issues, others haven’t. That’s why we decided to examine specific appearance-focused social media activities.
This is an important distinction because social media use isn’t homogenous and requires a more nuanced approach to measurement. If you think about it, our results make sense. If somebody spends most of their time on Facebook comparing themselves to attractive photos of their friends, they’re likely to be more preoccupied with their appearance than someone using Facebook to follow current affairs. Similarly, someone who follows models or fitness bloggers on Instagram is more likely to experience body image concerns or disordered eating, compared to somebody who follows appearance-neutral accounts like animals or comedians.
Tell me more about your results on “selfies’ and self-objectification?
I was interested in selfies because they map directly onto this psychological process of self-objectification (viewing oneself as an object to be evaluated by others), which we already know is a large risk factor for body shame and eating disorders. We found that the higher the level of photo investment (i.e. how much effort they put into selecting the best photo and how much they worry about how many “likes” they’ll get) was associated with higher levels of body dissatisfaction and bulimia symptomatology, and that self-objectification moderated this relationship.
Where might your research go next?
In recent times there’s been this new movement of body positive accounts, especially on Instagram. In these accounts, women with diverse body shapes and sizes post images of themselves with a focus on self-acceptance, body love and self-compassion. I’m looking into doing an experimental study where we expose people to images of body positive accounts and then images of thin-ideal accounts, and see if there’s a difference in outcomes. Are they, for example, fostering greater body appreciation and acceptance, or are they just maintaining that same preoccupation with appearance?
What about men? Are the outcomes similar for them?
My research is mainly in young women, but research has started to look into men and they’re finding similar results. Although the body ideal is different, men also compare themselves to others on social media and are experiencing similar pressures and dissatisfaction.
As the mother of a small daughter and a small son (who have yet to be exposed to social media), this research terrifies me. What advice would you give to parents to help them prepare their children for this brave new world?
It’s important to have conversations and raise awareness with children about the pros and cons of social media use. Explore with them what kind of activities they engage in online – what they post online, who they follow, what they see – and the potential consequences of these types of engagement on the way they think, feel and behave. Talk with them about things like privacy online, cyberbullying, and in terms of body image you can help your child by discussing how social media (just like traditional media) portrays body image ideals that are often unrealistic and unattainable. I would also say to make yourself aware of what they’re engaging in, so you can help them navigate it. I would recommend monitoring your child’s social media use and try to limit screen time in favour of real interactions as much as possible.