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The Effects of Social Media Use on Teens' Body Image

Can the negative impact of social media use on body image in youth be reversed?

Key points

  • Social media and body image concerns are prevalent among youth.
  • Social media may impact body image and mental health via unfavourable social comparisons.
  • Reducing social media use can improve body image in youth.

Social media has become the primary form of interaction amongst Gen Z “tech-savvy” adolescents and young adults. You know, the ones we go to when we can’t figure out how to reset our password. It’s such an ingrained part of their youth and modern-day culture, that a life without social media or a smartphone is unfathomable. Given that social media is still a relatively new form of communication, combined with its now omnipresent use, there is widespread concern about its effects on mental health in youth. Adolescence and young adulthood are stages of life known to have rapid social, emotional, and physical changes. This makes the teen years and transition to early adulthood a particularly vulnerable period for developing mental health issues.

The most obvious benefit of social media is that it allows youth, no matter where they are situated, to instantly connect, to engage with their peers through messaging, and to share pictures and videos. While this connectedness to the world around them can be positive, it comes with a cost, at least for some youth. Common features such as the number of friends or followers, or the number of likes of pictures or posts are often viewed as a reflection of one’s popularity. The social comparisons that impressionable young teens make can influence how they feel about themselves and their bodies.

We have long known that exposure to unrealistic beauty standards that are portrayed in popular culture can have a negative effect on body image. However, in the modern digital era, youth are exposed to hundreds, if not thousands, of images a day. Photos and posts on social media are chosen to present and maintain a carefully constructed image of one’s best self. They are frequently enhanced by photo and body-editing program “filters,” making appearance comparisons unattainable and dangerous. These online portrayals of overly positive and oftentimes false “realities“ can leave youth feeling dissatisfied with their appearance, and that their lives don’t measure up. This virtual popularity contest can also lead to a strong pressure to post and “keep up” or risk being perceived as unpopular or leading less interesting lives, resulting in even greater dissatisfaction. The unending search for the perfect picture inevitably takes valuable time away from activities that could actually make youth feel better about themselves.

What’s known about social media’s influence on body image?

Many studies have shown a rising trend for greater body and weight dissatisfaction amongst youth who are heavy or frequent users of social media. However, these studies are largely correlational rather than causal in nature. Simply put, those studies did not determine if high exposure to social media created poorer body image amongst its users, or whether those suffering from body image concerns spent more time on social media. This lack of clarity led my students and me to embark on a study to better understand the causal effects of social media on body image and mental health.

We recruited a group of Canadian youth aged 17-24 years who were using social media for more than two hours per day and also experiencing higher levels of emotional distress. We tracked their social media use for one week by having participants send daily screenshots of their usage. These youth spent approximately two and a half hours per day on social media. During this same period, we also assessed their body image and other mental health measures. Participants were then assigned to two groups. The intervention group reduced their daily social media use to one hour per day. The control group continued to have unrestricted use of social media. After the three-week intervention period ended, those who reduced daily social media use reported significantly greater improvements in appearance esteem and weight esteem compared to those who had not reduced their social media use.

What does this mean going forward?

In a society where demands for child and youth mental health services are increasing and waitlists for care are long, we urgently need to identify simple but effective strategies that parents and youth can do to feel better. The good news is that the results of this study suggest that reducing social media use to more moderate levels—about one hour per day—is a good place to start.

Replacing social media use with more mental health-promoting activities such as physical activity, time in nature, pursuing hobbies, and spending quality time with friends and family can yield even greater psychological benefits.

Stay tuned for future posts as my laboratory and others continue to explore the relationship between various forms of digital media use, mental health, and social and cognitive development among our most precious resources: our children and youth.


Thai, H., Davis, C. G., Mahboob, W., Perry, S., Adams, A., & Goldfield, G. S. (In Press). Reducing social media use improves appearance and weight esteem in youth with emotional distress. Psychology of Popular Media, online February, 2023

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