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The Link Between Social Media and Body Image

October 9, 2019

Illustration of a user "voting" with a like on an image of body shape representing the link between social media and body image.
Whether we’d like to admit it or not, social media is shaping our concept of beauty. We are, for better or worse, constantly consuming images posted online. As a result, social media and body image – the way we perceive our own physical appearance – have become inextricably linked. Social media influences how we look at ourselves both positively and negatively, and it’s important that we understand the effects in order to limit their impact on our mental health.

Positive Effects of Social Media on Body Image

Social media can positively impact body image in a number of ways. Health and wellness, fitness, and plant-based food accounts can all be inspirational models for some users. Through these frameworks, social media users can maintain a healthy and positive outlook on their body image.

Recently, the organization Eating Disorder Hope detailed how social media can potentially benefit the way women feel about their body image. They said the landscape of body positivity on the internet has created a more understanding and inclusive space for all body types. As a result, “body image advocacy on social media can make a huge impact on individuals actively struggling with eating disorders.” Further, social media can help some users navigate the heavily stigmatized topic of body image with different support groups available across different platforms.

Similarly, Sarah Gervais, Ph.D. of Psychology Today illustrated that Instagram has the ability to empower users because the platform has made eating disorder-specific keywords or hashtags unsearchable. When these search terms are excluded, people can focus on healthier representations of bodies on social media.

Beth Daley, writing for the Conversation, reported on research she’d recently conducted on body positivity and social media. The study “found that brief exposure to body-positive Instagram posts resulted in improved body image and mood in young women, compared to idealized and appearance-neutral posts.”

At the same time, though, Daley also discovered the surveyed women thought about their bodies more in general. In other words, body positivity-oriented posts could boost women’s self-esteem, but the content would also put women into a position of thinking about their physical appearance even more.

The Psychology of Social Media

Because of the trend of extended use, researchers are joining the field to analyze the psychology of social media in our constantly connected culture. Learn more in our latest guide.

Read the Guide

How Does Social Media Affect Body Image Negatively?

Although it can have a positive effect on the mental health of some of its users, early research for the most part indicates that social media negatively affects people’s perception of their body image.

Project Know, a nonprofit organization designed to help people with addictive behaviors, explored how social media can exacerbate eating disorders and may trigger or worsen “certain genetic or psychological predispositions.” While social media hasn’t been definitively proven to cause psychological disorders, it can intensify pre-existing mental health conditions.

Continuing in this vein, an article out of the journal Body Image explained that young women often compare their appearances negatively with other women on Facebook. The study surveyed 227 female college students and found that “young women who spend more time on Facebook may feel more concerned about their body because they compare their appearance to others (especially to peers).” This means there are profound psychological consequences for women’s body image when they compare their physical appearances to others.

The ways that people compare their bodies to images they see in the media has been an increasingly important topic for researchers. Deanna Puglia, a burgeoning specialist in media and journalism, provided just as much. She stated “social media is a new avenue for individuals to engage in maladaptive body comparison processes, creating a need for health communication and behavior change interventions that address this issue, especially among vulnerable populations.” The call for more research should be heeded, since more and more young women compare their bodies to altered versions of bodies.

A bombshell study conducted by the Florida House Experience, a healthcare institution, uncovered that both women and men compare their bodies with those in the media. The survey included 1,000 men and women and focused on their body image, confidence, and the media. It found that 87% of women and 65% of men compare their bodies to images they consume on social and traditional media. In that comparison, a stunning 50% of women and 37% of men compare their bodies unfavorably.

87% of women and 65% of men compare their bodies to images they consume on social and traditional media. In that comparison, a stunning 50% of women and 37% of men compare their bodies unfavorably.

An article in Time outlined how this unfavorable self-concept can lead to other issues because of an excess of editing software. “Thanks to an array of free applications, selfie-holics now have the power to alter their bodies in pictures in a way that’s practically on par with makeup and other beauty products.” The article went on to say that painstakingly editing photos can lead to a false sense of control where users feel as if they can alter their bodies to get more positive attention. This disconnect between perception and reality increases the distance between what users feel about themselves in real life and what they think about their online persona.

Users need to be aware of the negative effects of social media on body image. The consequences can be devastating on the mental health of users, which makes it absolutely necessary that the psychology of social media receives more and more attention.

How to Prevent Body Image Issues

As far as preventative measures and treatment for a negative body image caused by social media, a lot more research needs to be done. Scholars and psychologists haven’t pinpointed the best practices for screening and treating mental health problems associated with social media. Still, some researchers have offered tips on how to maintain a positive body image in the world of social media.

The BBC recently offered some pretty relatable advice: “Put down your phone.” At the same time, though, they suggested that abandoning social media platforms and accounts altogether might prove too difficult for most.

Instead, the BBC recommended social media users change the focus of their feeds and followers. Rather than following celebrities with heavily edited photos, “finding inspiring landscapes, delicious food, and cute dogs to fill your Instagram feed might just help you remember there’s more to life than what you look like.” While this isn’t a scientifically proven treatment method, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Moreover, a piece in Forbes offered tips for how social media users can maintain a positive outlook on their body image, including:

  • Unfollow or unfriend accounts that try to sell you products with their bodies.
  • Keep up with accounts that promote healthy living with factual information.
  • Tap into the way body positive influencers treat body image.
  • Avoid speaking negatively about your body, especially in real-life.
  • Disconnect from social media to be active.

Social media users should remember to treat their self-esteem seriously. The organization Better Help, which works to provide affordable counseling services, said, “A negative body image and low self-esteem can lead to other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.” They recommended that, for the best long-term results, social media users struggling with body image seek help from mental health professionals.

Other researchers are looking to the future for preventative practices. An article appearing on the National Eating Disorders Collaboration’s website recommended we “educate young people on appropriate social media use and to increase awareness that social media may not always reflect reality.” Educational measures can inform young people on the pitfalls of cyberbullying, the consequences of unfair or unethical body image comparisons, and the benefits of digital critical thinking tools.

One of the best ways to approach this issue is to learn more. Social media will only continue to present unexpected mental health challenges, particularly on the way we perceive our own body image. Because research in this field is on the rise, it’s time to consider concentrating on the psychological effects of social media by earning an online bachelor’s in psychology. This degree is designed to educate students in the breadth and depth of psychological theories and research with special emphasis on how these areas relate to the real world.

King University offers a fully online B.S. in Psychology that allows students to progress through the degree path comfortably and at their own pace, sometimes as quickly as in 16 months. Our program allows students to work within a diagnostic framework and learn about evidence-based techniques that can be immediately applied to your job.