How social media can affect your body image

Health Agenda
Mental Health

How social media can affect your body image

Published December 2022 | 6 min read
Words by Bonnie Bayley

We’re spending more time than ever on social media, but how exactly does it impact our body image, and is it all bad news? Here’s what the latest research reveals.

It’s hard to believe modern social media (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok) has only emerged in the past two decades, yet has become so integral to our lives.

In 2022, 82.7% of Aussies are active social media users (up from 58% in 2015). We spend an average of one hour and 57 minutes per day on our favourite platforms.

Much of the content we see online is highly curated, edited and filtered to look as flawless and appealing as possible. Photoshop is no longer just for fashion magazines: a UK study found that 90% of young women use a filter or edit their photos before posting.

This unrealistic portrayal could be having an adverse effect on mental health and body image. In Canada, there was a 62% increase in eating disorder-related emergency department visits recorded between 2018–2019 and 2020, and in the US, depressive symptoms in young adults increased by 63% between 2018 and 2019 with researchers saying “a likely explanation could be the concurrent rise in social media”.

It’s not all bad news, though. On the flipside, recent years have seen push-back in the form of more body-positive, diverse and unfiltered images being shared, and a rise in the ‘body neutrality’ movement, which encourages people to feel neutral about their body and focus on what it can do, rather than how it looks.

Here’s what we know so far about how social media impacts body image, which platforms are most concerning, and how you can safeguard your self-esteem.

How social media affects body image

Social media presents us with a never-ending feed of highlights, where people often put the most attractive version of themselves forward. This can leave us feeling like we fall short.

“Social media conditions us to be aspirational and do upwards comparisons, where we feel worse about ourselves and our bodies,” says Dr Gemma Sharp, clinical psychologist and head of Monash University’s Body Image Research Group. She says this can have far-reaching implications for our quality of life. “Body image is a crucial part of self-identity, so if our body image is negative, it impacts our overall self-perception, how we navigate the world, interact with people and do our jobs,” she says.

The detrimental impacts of social media use on body image are well documented. A 2022 study found that viewing ‘fitspiration’ (content that aims to inspire us to exercise and be healthy) and so-called ‘clean eating’ content was associated with increased levels of compulsive exercise, internalising thin ideals and disordered eating. Research also shows that poor body image can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse and self-harm – so it’s no small matter.

The evidence suggests that the more social media use – specifically appearance-focused social media – the poorer the body image,” says Marika Tiggemann, emeritus professor in psychology at Flinders University. “It’s a false environment with unrealistic ideals, but the problem is, it’s so enmeshing that it becomes a very real environment that feels normal.”

Who is most affected by social media

It’s thought that young people are the most vulnerable to body image concerns, because they are still forming a sense of identity. “Peer acceptance is part of adolescence in particular, but social media gives it a way of playing out that’s not very healthy,” says Prof Tiggemann.

Young females are at risk, with young women aged 14 to 24 the most prolific users of social media in Australia. Males and those who identify as male are also vulnerable to body dissatisfaction at similar rates to females, according to The Butterfly Foundation.

That said, anyone, of any age, can be impacted and male body images issues are on the rise. “Everyone, from the 13-year-old girl to the 81-year-old man, has a sense of body image, but some of us have a stronger investment in it than others, and older women are not immune,” says Dr Sharp.

As for which platforms are most problematic, Dr Sharp and Prof Tiggemann agree that the visual-based platforms (like Instagram and TikTok) are most dysfunctional for body image, rather than more text-based ones like Facebook and Twitter.

The way in which you engage with social media matters, too. Passive social media use (simply scrolling) has been linked to greater symptoms of anxiety and depressed mood, while ‘social grooming’ behaviours (viewing and commenting on others’ photos and statuses) and seeking negative feedback via status updates are also correlated with body dissatisfaction.

The upside of social media

Despite its many drawbacks, social media does have some redeeming points. It can be a powerful way to connect to a body-accepting network of people, and can be a safe, supportive environment for the LGBTQI+ community, who are particularly vulnerable to body image-related stress.

In recent years the body positivity movement, which prides itself on content that shows a diverse range of body shapes, facial features, disabilities and skin types and tones, has helped widen our lens of what is not just ‘normal’, but beautiful.

Studies have also found that trends we might think to be positive, like ‘love your body’ captions, disclaimers about digitally altered images and #nofilter hashtags aren’t that beneficial – particularly if the focus is still on an attractive person.

“The evidence suggests that the picture wins over text,” says Prof Tiggemann. “What does work is pictures of more diverse bodies and also some humour.” Instagram vs reality posts (like those posted by comedian Celeste Barber) similarly have the potential to bolster body satisfaction.

Dr Sharp says the latest movement to gain traction is body neutrality – where you accept your body for what it is, and appreciate function over appearance. “Going from a negative body image to a positive one is a really big leap, so body neutrality is much more achievable,” she says.

Here are six ways to help preserve a healthy body image

Think critically

Social media literacy (critically analysing the motivations behind posts and the constructed nature of images) is a protective factor for body image. “Just about all the images you see have been edited, filtered or highly selected, and are therefore idealised,” says Prof Tiggemann. Also, be aware that much of so-called ‘wellness’ culture is in fact diet culture.

Curate your feed

Unfollow or mute any accounts or people that make you feel worse about yourself. “Follow non-appearance-based sites, people, hobbies, travel or whatever takes your fancy that’s not about bodies,” says Prof Tiggemann. If you feel triggered by content online, KIT is a body image chatbot that provides in-the-moment advice.

Set an intention

“Mindless scrolling is almost a distraction from life, which is where setting an intention can be helpful,” says Dr Sharp. When you next reach for your device, ask yourself, ‘What are my intentions? What do I want to get out of this?’ For instance, your intention might be to write to a friend – so try to stick to that.

Have a breather

Taking just one week’s hiatus from social media leads to significant improvements in wellbeing. Setting boundaries around the amount of time you spend online is also a smart move, as limiting social media use to half an hour a day leads to significant reductions in loneliness, anxiety and depression – but start where you’re at. “If you’re on social media all day, even just going off for an hour or two is a big deal,” says Dr Sharp.

Release your attachment to the outcome

Being heavily invested in the reactions or validation you get from posts can put your self-esteem in peril. Cut down the amount of time you spend editing and posting photos (which will break the cycle of your investment in social media) and experiment with posting photos just because you like them, not because of reactions you may get.

Know your power as a parent

It’s never too early to start conversations around body image and social media literacy with your kids. Encouragingly, a study of adolescents aged 12 to 19 found a positive relationship with their mothers helped protect against the negative effects of social media use on body dissatisfaction.

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