- Norway legislators have passed new regulations that will require social media influencers to label their edited photos.
- Psychology research indicates that exposure to edited social media photos has negative effects on body image, for both teens and adults.
- Unfortunately, this legislation is not supported by research: Many recent psychology studies have found warning labels to be ineffective.
Norway legislators passed a new social media law, which is gaining international attention. The legislation aims to address a huge societal problem: the proliferation of edited social media images that depict unrealistic beauty standards.
This legislation requires social media influencers and advertisers to add a standardized disclaimer label to edited photos. Edited photos may include modifications to a body’s shape, size, and/or skin.
Other countries are considering similar legislation.
According to an article from The Hill, the new regulations were passed overwhelmingly by the Norwegian parliament in June 2021 in a 72–15 vote. The regulations are expected to take effect following approval by the king of Norway.
The desire to protect children and adolescents seems to be a key factor motivating this legislation. According to Vice, the Ministry of Children and Families cited high levels of “kroppspress” among children and young people in their proposal to the Norwegian parliament. Kroppspress translates literally to “body pressure.”
The Ministry stated: “Body pressure is always there, often imperceptibly, and is difficult to combat. […] The measure will hopefully make a useful and significant contribution to curbing the negative impact that such advertising has, especially on children and young people.”
The new regulations have been championed not only by the Ministry but also by many social media influencers.
But will this legislation be effective in “curbing the negative impact”? Is this claim supported by psychology research?
Does exposure to edited social media photos have negative effects on body image?
Psychology research provides strong evidence that edited photos can be harmful to body image.
Why? Edited images expose users to increasingly unrealistic beauty standards, which are unattainable for the vast majority of individuals. This can lead to social comparison and body shame and, in turn, to mental health problems, such as depressive symptoms and disordered eating.
Psychology experiments with both adolescents and adults have demonstrated that, compared to unedited photos, edited photos lead to higher social comparison and worse body image.
In an experimental study published in 2018, Dr. Mariska Kleemans and colleagues exposed groups of teen girls to Instagram photos of young women, which were either unedited (control condition) or edited (experimental condition). Examples of edits included reshaping techniques to make waists look slimmer and legs look thinner (techniques that are readily available to social media users).
The results were concerning. Girls exposed to the edited images reported worse body image at the end of the experiment, as compared to girls in the control group. And girls described the edited photos as realistic; they hadn’t detected the reshaping. Negative effects were stronger among girls with higher social comparison tendencies.
These research findings indicate that edited social media photos—not photos in general—may lead to body image concerns.
And if these effects can be found through just a brief lab-based exposure, what might the cumulative effects be of constant exposure to edited images?
Parents, psychologists, and policy-makers are eager to take action to address the problem of edited social media photos.
Adding a warning label may seem like an excellent solution, based on common sense, as well as prior health promotion campaigns. For example, decades of research support the effectiveness of health warnings on cigarette packs.
But are warning labels effective for beauty-oriented media images?
Can warning labels protect against the harmful effects of edited images?
Psychology research indicates that warning labels are not effective in protecting against body image concerns.
This was the conclusion of two recent reviews of the literature, each published in peer-reviewed psychology journals in 2020.
Two teams of researchers reviewed the literature on warning labels for media images depicting idealized thin bodies. Elisa Danthinne and colleagues conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis, focusing on the effects of warning labels used in advertisements. Sarah McComb and Dr. Jennifer Mills conducted a systematic review focused specifically on studies that had used experimental designs. Both research teams reached the same conclusion: Disclaimers were ineffective in mitigating negative effects on body image.
These review papers did not focus specifically on social media images, but recent social media-specific experiments have reached the same conclusion:
Zoe Brown and Dr. Marika Tiggemann published a study in 2020 in which female undergraduate students were exposed to a set of Instagram celebrity images that included either no caption, a disclaimer caption, or a body-positive caption; other students in a control condition were exposed to travel images. Exposure to the celebrity images increased young women’s body dissatisfaction, and the captions did not protect against these negative effects.
And in a study published in 2021, Dr. Brigitte Naderer and colleagues worked with adolescents in Austria to create a youth-friendly disclaimer message for social media—but it still wasn’t effective.
The evidence is clear: Psychology research simply does not support the effectiveness of warning labels for social media images.
Unfortunately, legislation like Norway’s might not just be ineffective at achieving the intended positive effects. This legislation could even have negative effects.
For example, in their 2020 review paper mentioned above, Danthinne and colleagues found that disclaimer labels can increase appearance comparisons.
And if editing photos becomes stigmatized, will influencers begin to take more extreme offline measures to achieve beauty standards, such as cosmetic surgery? According to Vice, this possibility was considered by the Norway Ministry.
Was the research evidence considered?
Brown, Z., & Tiggemann, M. (2020). A picture is worth a thousand words: The effect of viewing celebrity Instagram images with disclaimer and body positive captions on women’s body image. Body Image, 33, 190-198. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2020.03.003
Danthinne, E. S., Giorgianni, F. E., & Rodgers, R. F. (2020). Labels to prevent the detrimental effects of media on body image: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Eating Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23242. Advance online publication.
Kleemans, M., Daalmans, S., Carbaat, I., & Anschütz, D. (2018). Picture perfect: The direct effect of manipulated Instagram photos on body image in adolescent girls. Media Psychology, 21(1), 93–110. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15213269.2016.1257392
McComb, S. E., & Mills, J. S. (2020). A systematic review on the effects of media disclaimers on young women’s body image and mood. Body Image, 32, 34-52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2019.10.010
Naderer, B., Peter, C., & Karsay, K. (2021). This picture does not portray reality: developing and testing a disclaimer for digitally enhanced pictures on social media appropriate for Austrian tweens and teens. Journal of Children and Media. http://10.1080/17482798.2021.1938619. Advance online publication.