Social media and body image

The use of social media is pervasive worldwide and has grown rapidly in popularity since the early 2000s. Social media use is particularly popular among young people, with around 90% of youth in the Western world having at least one social media account,72 which they browse for several hours each day.7’ Social media is popular among the populations of low-, middle-, and high-income countries. For example, in India it is estimated that 258 million people were using social media in 2019." There are a variety of different social media platforms, and they all slightly differ in their functions and features. Image-based platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube, are currently among the most popular platforms used by youth,7’ although Facebook has the highest number of users, with over 2.23 billion active users worldwide.76 Most research in the field has focused on Facebook, but there are an increasing number of studies focused on Instagram. More research is needed on other platforms, such as Snapchat, Pinterest,YouTube, WhatsApp, and Reddit. Females are larger users of social media than males"; however, the impact of social media use on body image appears to be similar for girls or women and boys or men.78

Each day, more than 300 million images are posted on Facebook" and 95 million images are posted on Instagram.80 Thus, social media provide users with forums for frequently engaging in appearance comparisons. Social media allow users to create public or semi-public personal profiles, and to customize their pages with photos and information about themselves. Like magazine images, which are edited and often “enhanced” before publication, social media users are able to edit images of themselves before uploading them. They are also able to closely refine and edit their self-presentation in order to portray an idealized or “hoped for possible” version of the self.81 For example, social media users can enhance images through the use of lighting, makeup, camera angles, image filters, or image manipulation programs/applications. Therefore, the images that people view and are available for comparison on social media may not depict natural (unenhanced) or attainable beauty. Importantly, just as with exposure to idealized images in more traditional media, viewing and comparing to ones own or other people’s idealized images and profiles on social media could put pressure on users to internalize beauty ideals and may also have a negative impact on their self-evaluations and overall well-being.

A unique aspect of social media is the different types of people presented. Unlike more traditional forms of media (such as magazines and television), which predominantly feature images of models and celebrities, social media contains images of a variety of different types of individuals. This can include images of models and celebrities through advertisements, fan pages, and other commercial sites, but also people who are known to the user (i.e.,“friends”). Furthermore, these known others can vary in relational closeness to the user, including family members, close friends, and acquaintances. Sociocultural models of body image, such as the Tripartite Model of Influence,82 make specific reference to the impact of appearance-related pressures from different sources, including one’s family, peers, and the media. Given that social media contains all three sources of pressure (family members, peers, models/celebrities), it may be a particularly strong purveyor of appearance ideals. This potential has prompted growing concerns about the influence of social media on the body image of young people.

Correlational research

The majority of research on social media and body image has utilized correlational designs with self-report questionnaires. Early research focused on how the amount of time spent on social media relates to body image, and differences between the body image of users and nonusers of certain platforms. Users of social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram tend to report being more concerned about their appearance than nonusers.8' Further, some studies have found a link between more time spent on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, and higher body image concerns among adolescent and adult women and men.84 However, others have found no association between these variables.8’ The mixed results in the field are perhaps not surprising given that social media relies on user generated platforms, allowing users to choose whose content they access, what they post themselves, and how they interact with others.86 For this reason, each user will be exposed to different content on social media.Therefore, browsing social media is only likely to influence users’ body image if they seek out and/or engage in harmful appearance-focused activities or make negative comparisons to others. For example, research has found that the link between time spent on social media and body dissatisfaction is partly accounted for (or mediated by) the amount of appearance comparisons users make while online.8'

More consistent links have been found between users’ body image and specific types of activities they engage in on social media. With the worldwide adoption of smartphones, people can take a large number of photos of themselves (i.e., “selfies”) quickly, cheaply, and easily, and are able to instantly share those images with others online. Selfie activities have gained increasing attention in the literature. Research suggests that engaging in more photo-based activities, such as being invested in and manipulating selfies on social media, is associated with more appearance concerns.88 Another aspect of social media that has garnered increasing attention from researchers is the impact of exposure to “fitspiration” images. These images are purportedly designed to motivate users to exercise and eat healthily in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. However, content analyses of fitspiration posts have found that they are highly appearance focused (e.g., images that focus on aspects of the body like the stomach and biceps, and images in which people are passively posing in gym clothes) and primarily feature people who match gendered and narrow beauty ideals.8'1 Correlational research has found that the more women and men view fitspiration content on social media and/or the more they post fitspiration images online, the more likely they are to experience appearance concerns. ’" This relationship is mediated and explained by people making appearance comparisons with the people in the inspiration images and internalizing the gendered beauty ideals as a result of viewing those images. ” Taken together, correlational research to date suggests that viewing appearance-focused content on social media, in addition to posting and editing images of oneself online, is linked to more body image concerns among women and men. However, because this research is correlational, the direction of the relationship cannot be determined. Further, the relationship between these variables may be bidirectional. For example, engaging in more appearance-based activities on social media may increase users’ appearance concerns, and those with heightened appearance concerns may choose to engage in more appearance-based activities on social media. More experimental and longitudinal research is needed to determine the complex interactions between social media and body image.

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