The role of conventional media, full of the “thin ideal” content, is well recognized in the development of negative body image and increasing the risk of eating disorders. However, as social media takes over more and more of our lives, researchers suggest that heavy usage of social media sites, such as Facebook or Instagram, might even more dangerous, especially for those already at risk.
Body image dissatisfaction (BID) is a relatively common phenomenon, which results from the mismatch of personal and societal standards of appearance. Females in particular are susceptible to BID when comparing own image with, e.g., pictures of models found in the common media channels. Naturally, lingering dissatisfaction with own appearance negatively affects one’s psychological wellbeing. Most importantly though, BID is just one step away of causing and maintaining eating disorders (EDs), and should not be taken lightly.
As a recent Australian study suggests, one of the key differences between conventional and social media in context of body-related stimuli, is that the latter exposes us to images and commentary of our peers – not top models or popular figures whose portrayals in the media are admitted to diverge from “reality”. As such, we are much more likely to take Facebook comparisons to the heart, and be lead to seek the same form as our friends or family.
Importantly though, while most people recognize the images in conventional media are digitally enhanced, not many consider that Facebook profiles might not represent objective reality either. In fact, many Facebook users admit to strategically manipulate their Facebook profiles to meet the societal standards of appearance and lifestyle habits (e.g. exercise or healthy diet). Unfortunately, peers’ portrayals in social media are taken as “real” and personally relevant much more so than the obviously retouched media images.
Another point the social media sites have over conventional media is their “social context”, that is, replica of the natural social processes we are exposed to every day. These, for example, include competition for the attention of potential partners. Research in the field suggests that appearance comparisons are more likely in the context of such stimuli (e.g. when “thin ideal” content is accompanied by the comments of the opposite sex). Yet, they are generally absent in less interactive conventional media content, therefore supporting the idea that social media might be a lot more harmful.
Research conducted by scientists at the University of Sidney also revealed that social sites might be more dangerous for those already struggling or at high risk of BID and EDs. In fact, Facebook use for those at high risk of EDs was higher compared to those at low risk. This finding is particularly concerning, considering that unhappiness with own image might result in biased Facebook use. That is, people who already struggle with BID and EDs might be stimulated to access more and more body-related stimuli, which in turn serves to generate and maintain EDs even further. Besides, existing body-related concerns might make one more susceptible to the “thin ideal” content rather than anything else on Facebook.
Regardless of the other risk factors, it is important to recognize that social media sites are increasingly becoming the preferred social resource over other media formats. Besides, Facebook and similar sites are generally thought to be addictive, therefore amplifying their effects on psychological wellbeing of users.
According to the current study, increased Facebook use was in fact associated with higher baseline BID and risk of EDs. Moreover, another study has demonstrated that 50% of Facebook users (aged 16 to 40) report that Facebook content made them more body consoisoucs, 31% “felt sad” after comparing friends’ photos with their own image, and 44% desired the same body image as their peers.
These findings urge to consider social media might be just as important as regular media in the development of eating disorders, especially considering its increasing role in our daily lives.
Written by Eglė Marija Ramanauskaitė