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The Positive and Negative Effects of Social Media on Body Image

What we see on social media is constantly shaping our understanding of beauty. We are, for better or worse, constantly consuming images of other people’s bodies posted online. As a result, social media and body image – the way we perceive our own physical appearance – have become inextricably linked.  

This behaviour stems from the concept of a user “voting” with a like on an image of other people, representing the link between social media and body image. Because of this, social media influences how we look at ourselves both positively and negatively. It’s important that we understand how technology changes the way we perceive our own bodies in order to limit its impact on our mental health. 

Positive Effects of Social Media on Body Image 

Whilst social media has been frequently blamed for its negative effects on the way we view ourselves, social media can also positively impact body image in a number of ways.  

Health and wellness, fitness, and plant-based food accounts can all be inspirational models for some users looking to lose weight for health-based reasons. Through these frameworks, social media users can maintain a healthy and positive outlook on their body image. 

Recently, the organization Eating Disorder Hope detailed how social media can potentially benefit the way women feel about their body image. They attribute the landscape of body positivity on the internet to creating a more understanding and inclusive space for all body types.  

Due to social media’s usage by millions of people, it gives a more accurate depiction of diverse body shapes and sizes, helping to break out of the ideology that beauty is only relegated to the model-thin and traditionally beautiful.  

As a result, Eating Disorder Hope suggest that ‘body image advocacy on social media can make a huge impact on individuals actively struggling with eating disorders’. Furthermore, social media can help some users navigate the heavily stigmatised topic of body image with different support groups available across different platforms to reach out to. 

Similarly, Sarah Gervais, Ph.D. of Psychology Today illustrated that Instagram has the ability to enable users to be more body positive, as the platform has made eating disorder-specific keywords or hashtags unsearchable. When these search terms are excluded, people can focus on healthier representations of beauty on social media rather than those that are harmful. 

Negative Effects of Social Media on Body Image 

Although it can have a positive effect on the mental health of some of its users, early research for the most part indicates that social media negatively affects people’s long-term perception of their body image. 

Project Know, a non-profit organization designed to help people with addictive behaviours, explored how social media can encourage eating disorders and may trigger or worsen ‘certain genetic or psychological predispositions’. Due to its relative new-ness, social media hasn’t been definitively proven to cause psychological disorders, but it can intensify pre-existing mental health conditions due to its inherent reliance on comparing you and your perception of self to that of others. 

Furthermore, an article published in Body Image explains that young women often compare their outward appearance negatively with other women on Facebook. The study surveyed 227 female college students and found that ‘young women who spend more time on Facebook may feel more concerned about their body because they compare their appearance to others (especially to peers)’. This means there are profound psychological consequences for women’s body image when they compare their physical appearances to others. 

An article in Time, entitled ‘How Social Media is a Toxic Mirror’ outlines how this unfavourable self-image can lead to other issues because of excessive editing software. ‘Thanks to an array of free applications, SELFIE-HOLICS now have the power to alter their bodies in pictures in a way that’s practically on par with makeup and other beauty products’. The article goes on to say that painstakingly editing photos can lead to a false sense of control where users feel as if they can alter their bodies to get more positive attention.  

This disparity between perception and reality increases the distance between what users feel about themselves in real life, and what they think about their online persona. Users need to be aware of the negative effects of social media degrading the way they few their own bodies. The consequences can be devastating on the mental health of users, which makes it absolutely necessary that the psychology of social media receives more attention in the future. 

To Conclude: Monitoring Your Body Image

Taking these pros and cons into consideration, what can you do to prevent or treat a potentially negative body image caused by social media?  

Due to social media’s relative infancy, scholars and psychologists haven’t pinpointed the best practices for screening and treating mental health problems associated with social media. Still, some researchers have offered tips on how to maintain a positive body image in the world of social media. 

Here are some tips for how social media users can maintain a positive outlook on their body image, including: 

  • Unfollow or unfriend accounts that try to sell you products with their bodies. 
  • Keep up with accounts that promote healthy living with factual information. 
  • Tap into the way body positive influencers treat body image. 
  • Avoid speaking negatively about your body, especially in real-life. 
  • Disconnect from social media to be active. 

Social media users should remember to treat their self-esteem seriously. The organization Better Help, which works to provide affordable counselling services, says ‘a negative body image and low self-esteem can lead to other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression’. They recommended that, for the best long-term results, social media users struggling with body image seek help from mental health professionals.  

Other researchers are looking to the future for preventative practices. An article appearing on the National Eating Disorders Collaboration’s website recommended we ‘educate young people on appropriate social media use and to increase awareness that social media may not always reflect reality’. One of the best ways to approach this issue is to learn more. Social media will only continue to present unexpected mental health challenges, particularly on the way we perceive our own body image.  

If you would like to learn how Ceed may be able to help you with any of the issues raised in this article, please feel free to contact us here. 

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