Social media pictures may lead to negative body images

Spending long periods of time looking at photos of friends on social media sites could lead to women becoming insecure about their body image, a Strathclyde researcher has found.

The research study

Researchers surveyed 881 university women in the US about their Facebook use, eating and exercise habits, and body image. They were able to predict how often women felt negatively about their own bodies after looking at someone else's photos or posts, and how often women compared their own bodies to those of their friends.

The research, a collaboration with the universities of Ohio and Iowa, is the first of its kind involving social media. The findings were presented at the 64th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association in May 2014.

Research findings

Dr Petya Eckler, of the University of Strathclyde’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, said:

“Public health professionals who work in the area of eating disorders and their prevention now have clear evidence of how social media relates to college women's body image and eating disorders. While time spent on Facebook had no relation to eating disorders, it did predict worse body image among participants. As experts in the field know, poor body image can gradually lead to developing an unhealthy relationship with food. The attention to physical attributes may be even more dangerous on social media than on traditional media because participants in social media are people we know. These comparisons are much more relevant and hit closer to home. Yet they may be just as unrealistic as the images we see on traditional media."

The findings also highlighted that more time spent on Facebook was associated with more negative feelings and more comparisons to the bodies of friends. They also found that for women who want to lose weight, more time on Facebook led to more attention being paid to physical appearance. This included attention to body shape and clothing.

Previous studies have examined college or adolescent girls and the effect of Facebook on users' body image over non-users'. However, this is the first study to link time spent on Facebook to poor body image.

Dr Eckler presented the findings at the May conference with co-contributors Yusuf Kalyango Jr, Ohio University, and Ellen Paasch, University of Iowa.