The Emerging Role of Social Media

Chapter 5 reviewed the role of the media in reinforcing the thin ideal by portraying unrealistically thin women as ideals of beauty. Since publication of the first edition of this book in 2005, social media have gained increased importance in young women’s daily lives. For example, a recent study by Mabe et al. (2014) found that college women reported using Facebook approximately four times a day for approximately 20 minutes each time, and most (87%) accessed the site through an application on their smartphones. More than two-thirds of college women preferred to look at photos over other Facebook activities.

The ability to post carefully curated photos that may have been digitally altered with online tools such as “Plump&Skinny Booth” allows Facebook users to present and view images that display unrealistic beauty ideals. Social media thus create an opportunity to reinforce the thin ideal via posts and “likes” of, and comments on, idealized images. Indeed, participants with more disordered eating viewed receiving comments and “likes” on their status updates and receiving comments on their photos as more important than did participants with less disordered eating. Social media also provide a primarily visual medium that enhances women’s ability to objectify themselves and their peers and to engage in social comparison of themselves with their peers. Mabe et al. found that participants with more disordered eating “untagged” photos of themselves and compared their photos with those of their female friends more often than participants with less disordered eating did. Finally, higher disordered eating levels were associated with spending more time overall on Facebook.

Because a correlation between higher disordered eating levels and greater Facebook use does not prove causation, Mabe et al. (2014) used an experimental design to determine whether Facebook use caused changes in risk for eating pathology. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the experimental condition, participants completed measures of eating disorder risk before and after spending 20 minutes using Facebook as they normally would. In the control condition, participants completed measures of eating disorder risk before and after spending 20 minutes reading a Wikipedia article on the ocelot and watching a brief YouTube video clip about this animal. This control condition was selected to match the experimental condition for exposure to images while avoiding any references to food, eating, or weight. Compared with women in the control condition, women who used Facebook experienced greater reinforcement of weight and shape concerns and increases in anxiety—both of which are risk factors linked to the development of eating disorders (see Chapter 4).

To summarize, both longitudinal and experimental studies indicate that peer environment is a potent source of social influence on risk factors for eating disorders. Individuals are more likely to compare themselves with peers than with random individuals in their environment because they see peers as being more similar to themselves and as providing role models for attainable goals. Further, peer selection is influenced by personality features that may themselves be risk factors for eating disorders, such as perfectionism (discussed more in Chapter 7). Thus when considering the influence of social environment, it is important to consider how individuals choose their environments as they get older based on their personality traits. These personality factors may contribute individuals’ taking up pursuits, such as being in ballet or athletics, that expose them to social environments that further reinforce the importance of weight and shape and contribute to risk for eating pathology. The manipulation of the images people present of themselves on social media may also lay the groundwork for increased risk for eating disorders. Friends who view posted images may not be as cognizant of the extent to which these pictures do not reflect reality as they are when looking at, for example, pictures of celebrities on magazine covers. Moreover, self-objectification during the act of posting an image can hurt an individual as well: Even as she alters her own pictures before posting, she is communicating to herself that she is somehow not good enough.

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