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Social Media Is Tanking People's Body Image

A new review, social media tragedies, and tips to protect you and your family.

Key points

  • Social media use can contribute to body dissatisfaction in both adults and children.
  • Negative body image is associated with various adverse outcomes such as low self-esteem, eating disorders, and unhealthy lifestyle choices.
  • It's possible to become a more savvy social media consumer despite unhealthy content that appears in one's newsfeed.
Denise Robertson, image used with permission
Source: Denise Robertson, image used with permission

Your social media may be baiting you to watch content that can exacerbate body dissatisfaction. That’s according to a new review by Harriger and colleagues in the Body Image journal (published early online, 2022, April 1). Body dissatisfaction contributes to various problems, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, eating and body image struggles, eating disorders, and unhealthy lifestyle behaviors.

Please note that this post refers to “you” directly. If you have kids and they are on social media, the information applies to them, too.

While seeking positive body image content, you may find your social media feeds suggesting unsupportive, even triggering content.

How might that happen? Algorithms are basically programmed instructions, and those instructions are typically unknown to a social media user.

Think about your favorite social networking platforms. There are probably places that suggest videos, news, accounts, etc., you might like. Of course, any user could think that those suggestions are based purely on their interests. But in reality, many factors can influence what appears on feeds and pages. Examples include likes and dislikes (i.e., use of the anger emoji), shares, comments, time spent viewing videos, the company’s goals and strategies, and more (Oremus et al., 2021). Harriger and colleagues point out that common social media algorithms funnel people online to “personalized content that is often more extreme, less monitored, and designed to keep users engaged for longer periods of time.”

Which platform has the highest risk of amplifying body dissatisfaction?

It depends, and who knows?

  • Algorithms aren’t fixed or static. Harriger and associates point out the companies’ lack of transparency about what's filtered into—or out of—your feed.
  • Platforms that focus on visual images can be worse on body image than others that are less looks-focused (Vandenbosch, Fardouly, & Tiggemann, 2022). Try this experiment to see if this rings true to you: Take a few seconds, and consider the potential impact of Twitter vs. Instagram vs. TikTok vs. Snapchat, etc.
  • The use of image enhancement filters and editing software can compound the risk of, for example, eating disorders (Wick & Keel, 2020).

The form of social media we choose can enhance our vulnerabilities to feeling cruddy about ourselves, which can boomerang into potential mental health struggles.

Here’s what we can do to fall less victim to the deleterious effects of social media on body image.

According to Harriger and colleagues:

  • Educators, researchers, and clinicians can provide media literacy programs, and education can help potentially reduce the negative effects of social media.
  • Parents can role-model healthy social media use and discuss the risks of social media use with their children.
  • Users can remain mindful of the manipulations that may be occurring.
  • All of us can advocate for social media corporations to protect their users better.

Check your social media habits if your body image or mental wellness has plummeted.

With billions of social media users globally, you’re probably using some kind of social networking app. Harriger and associates’ article urges top-down change: “It is ultimately the responsibility of the social media corporations to protect and enhance the well-being of their users.” But unfortunately, powerful businesses don’t always do what’s in their customers’ best interests (Harriger et al.). And that leaves healthy management up to each user.

Tragically, some people will not be able to facilitate their social media use without deleterious outcomes.

  • Between 2011 and 2017, 259 selfie deaths occurred (Bansal et al., 2018). So, yes, that means that people were—and still are—willing to risk death for that great shot, the hope of going viral, or both.
  • According to Facebook internal communications, “Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.”
  • Research repeatedly shows that social media can be addictive (Cheng et al., 2021). As many of us know, either personally or due to a loved one, addiction tends to result in social, mental, and behavioral problems.
  • One mother in Connecticut is suing Snap and Meta, alleging the social media companies played roles in and have some responsibility for her 11-year-old’s suicide (Jackson, 2022)

Research and revelations will continue to emerge.

Unfortunately, scientific data generally evolves slower than social media grows. So, for now, here are five useful tips:

  1. Honor your intuition and common sense about it (as best as anyone can amid the potential manipulations).
  2. For safety, try to monitor your and your family's usage as best you can.
  3. Utilize practices for safer online experiences, such as in my prior post, “Get the Most From Your Mental Health Social Media: Be Aware and Proceed With Care.”
  4. Increase your social media literacy to mitigate the adverse effects of social media.
  5. Reach out to a therapist if you need support or might benefit from therapy. You can check the Psychology Today Therapy Directory to explore local options. Also, community mental health agencies can often serve those who may not have the financial ability for full-fee or insurance-based mental health help.

You are more than your body image, number of followers, a view count, or time spent on social media. Your well-being matters. (Same for your kids if you have them and they are on social media.)

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Bansal, A., Garg, C., Pakhare, A., & Gupta, S. (2018). Selfies: A boon or bane?. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, 7(4), 828–831. https://doi.org/10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_109_18

Cheng, C., Lau, Y., Chan, L., & Luk, J. W. (2021). Prevalence of social media addiction across 32 nations: Meta-analysis with subgroup analysis of classification schemes and cultural values. Addictive Behaviors, 117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2021.106845

Harriger, J. A., Evans, J. A., Thompson, J. K., & Tylka, T. L. (2022). The dangers of the rabbit hole: Reflections on social media as a portal into a distorted world of edited bodies and eating disorder risk and the role of algorithms. Body Image, 41, 292-297. Advanced online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2022.03.007

Jackson, S. (2022, January 22). Connecticut mother sues Meta and Snap, alleging they contributed to the suicide of 11-year-old daughter who had 'extreme addiction' to social media. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/mother-sues-meta-instagram-snap-allegin…

Oremus, W., Alcantara, C., Merrill, J. B., & Galocha, A. (2021, October 26). How Facebook shapes your feed: The evolution of what posts get top billing on users’ news feeds, and what gets obscured. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/interactive/2021/how-facebook…

Spotts-De Lazzer, A. (2021, October 2021). Get the Most From Your Mental Health Social Media: Be aware and proceed with care [Blog]. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/meaningfull/202110/get-the-most…

Vandenbosch, L., Fardouly, J., & Tiggemann, M. (2022). Social media and body image: Recent trends and future directions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 45, Article 101289. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.12.002

Wick, M. R., & Keel, P. K. (2020). Posting edited photos of the self: Increasing eating disorder risk or harmless behavior? International Journal of Eating Disorders, 53, 864– 872. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23263

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