Study: Social Media Often Leaves Young Women Feeling Badly About Their Bodies

TORONTO — Social media remains under the mental health microscope for its potential effects on users, particularly younger and more vulnerable segments. In a recent study conducted at York University in Toronto, researchers say many young women feel badly about their bodies after logging on and viewing images of friends they perceive to be more attractive.

Images posted to social media are often far from reality, but this research is among the first to analyze how all of these unrealistic pictures impact young women’s views on their own bodies. Researchers monitored young women between 18 and 27 years old who liked or commented on photos of people they believe to be more attractive than themselves.

“The results showed that these young adult women felt more dissatisfied with their bodies,” says co-lead researchers Jennifer Mills, an associate psychology professor at York, in a university release. “They felt worse about their own appearance after looking at social media pages of someone that they perceived to be more attractive than them. Even if they felt bad about themselves before they came into the study, on average, they still felt worse after completing the task.”

The researchers distributed an online questionnaire to the group of 118 female undergraduate students from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Each student stated their age, ethnicity, years of post-secondary education, and whether or not English was their first language. Participants were also asked to rate how satisfied or dissatisfied they were with their appearance. All of this took place six weeks before the experimental phase of the study.

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Then, for the experiment, participants were randomly assigned to one of two possible experimental groups. The first group was asked to view the profile of one peer of the same age on Facebook or Instagram they felt was more attractive than them. After at least five minutes, participants were asked to leave a comment of their choice.

Participants in the second group were asked to complete the same task as group one, except this time with a family member’s social media profile whom they did not think was more attractive than themselves. Subsequent data analysis revealed that interacting with these familial profiles had no impact on the subject’s self-body images.

“I think in a lot of cases, young women who post to social media are hoping to get positive reinforcement for what they’re posting and the way in which women use social media is more appearance-based than it is for men,” Mills continues.

According to the researchers, women in their late teens to mid 20s usually care very much about their appearance and how they are perceived by others. This female age group is also very likely to be active on social media.

“When we compare ourselves to other people, that has the potential to affect the valuation of ourselves,” Mills concludes. We really need to educate young people on how social media use could be making them feel about themselves and how this could even be linked to stringent dieting, eating disorders or excessive exercise. There are people who may be triggered by social media and who are especially vulnerable.”

The study is published in the journal Body Image.

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