University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine researchers found that frequent, extended social media use can negatively impact body image in young adults. The researchers determined the social media use of 1,765 U.S. adults ages 19-32 using a questionnaire and then screened them for eating disorder risk. The results of their analysis show that spending more time scrolling through social news feeds can heighten body image concerns and may be linked to a greater risk for engaging in disordered eating behaviors.
Compared to the participants who spent less time on social media, the young adults who spent the most time on social media throughout the day had 2.2 times the risk of reporting eating and body image concerns. The participants who said they checked social media the most frequently throughout the week had 2.6 times the risk of reporting eating and body image concerns compared to participants who checked their social feeds less frequently.
“We’ve long known that exposure to traditional forms of media, such as fashion magazines and television, is associated with the development of disordered eating and body image concerns, likely due to the positive portrayal of ‘thin’ models and celebrities,” Jaime E. Sidani, Ph.D., M.P.H., lead author of the study and assistant director of the Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health, said in a news release. “Social media combines many of the visual aspects of traditional media with the opportunity for social media users to interact and propagate stereotypes that can lead to eating and body image concerns.”
Where social media differs from traditional media is that it allows users to edit their appearance into ideal versions of themselves. According to researchers from Boston Medical Center, the photo-editing technologies found in various social media platforms can have a negative effect on people’s body image. This is particularly harmful for many teenage girls, the researchers said, who often use social media to manipulate photos of themselves and gain validation for their body image concerns by sharing those edited photos.
For others, the compulsion to manipulate images of themselves into idealized versions has led to what Boston Medical researchers call “Snapchat dysmorphia.” Hashtags like “thinspo” and “thinspiration” are daily realities that live outside of photographs, and some people attempt to change their bodies — including seeking surgery — to try to look like the filtered and edited versions of themselves.
Conversely, when young people step away from their screens and spend more time with people who are less focused on their bodies and eating habits, it can improve the way they eat and feel about their bodies. Researchers from the University of Waterloo found that when female undergraduate students spent more time with non-body-focused individuals, it decreased their likelihood of developing an eating disorder and encouraged them to eat more intuitively.
“Body dissatisfaction is ubiquitous and can take a huge toll on our mood, self-esteem, relationships, and even the activities we pursue,” Allison Kelly, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Waterloo, said in a news release. “It’s important to realize that the people we spend time with actually influence our body image. If we are able to spend more time with people who are not preoccupied with their bodies, we can actually feel much better about our own bodies.”
Social media gives people the opportunity to present the most filtered, idealized version of themselves to the world — and that can make it so easy to play the comparison game. Sometimes, taking a moment to spend some time in the real world with unedited, unfiltered bodies of all shapes and sizes can be a wonderful reminder that you are enough just as you are.
Boston Medical Center. (2018). A new reality for beauty standards: how selfies and filters affect body image. Retrieved from https://www.bmc.org/news/press-releases/2018/08/02/new-reality-beauty-standards-how-selfies-and-filters-affect-body.
Grant, M. (2019). Your body image is impacted by those around you. University of Waterloo. Retrieved from https://uwaterloo.ca/news/news/your-body-image-impacted-those-around-you.
Hydzik, A. and Trentrock, A. (2016). Greater social media use tied to higher risk of eating and body image concerns in young adults. University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.upmc.com/media/news/sidani-eating-disorder.