Today, April 23, marks the start of the 2015 International Conference for Eating Disorders (ICED), where clinicians and researchers from across the globe convene to share the current state of the science around eating disorder prevention and treatment. Perhaps it is fitting that this year’s theme is on communication, especially new forms like social media, since recent research in the Psychology of Women Quarterly showed that there is a link between Facebook use and body dissatisfaction.
It is the act of social comparison and self-objectification that is most to blame for this correlation, since Facebook can be used as an easy way to compare oneself visually to others. This negative internalization of images has been linked with depleted body satisfaction in more traditional media, specifically fashion magazines. Facebook, however, is a plethora of images, with 10 million new photos uploaded daily, suggesting that such a visual medium might similarly influence body-related comparisons.
In this study, researchers in Australia surveyed 150 women aged 17-25 about their body satisfaction and social media use, including: feelings on their personal appearance, self-objectification, Facebook usage, and comparison tendencies. The findings indicated that both Facebook and magazine use were positively correlated with self-objectification and mediated by appearance-based comparisons. Additionally, comparisons to one’s peers on Facebook explained some of the relationship between Facebook usage and self-objectification. The study concluded from these findings that appearance-based comparisons can significantly influence young women’s self-objectification.
Unlike fashion magazines, Facebook offers images of peers and therefore a more relevant and seemingly attainable image than models who have been air-brushed. However, many individuals now use basic photoshopping programs to alter their pictures before uploading and there is a bias to the type of photos uploaded; individuals are more likely to post flattering pictures of themselves.
Although this study focused solely on young women, it is likely that young men and also older age groups are similarly influenced by Facebook to make appearance-based comparisons. The authors also noted that causation could not be concluded since it was a correlational study; therefore, we cannot say for a fact that Facebook leads to self-objectification. It could be that individuals who participate in self-objectification are more likely to use Facebook. Future studies will have to be conducted to determine causality.
This research provides a negative outlook on social media and how it might influence body satisfaction and eating disorders. Although eating disorders are a biologically-based disease, body dissatisfaction heightened by appearance-based comparisons could increase symptoms or trigger a relapse.
However, it is also important to remember that social media is just a tool and is not inherently good or bad. It is how it is used that determines whether it is harmful or helpful.
The ICED addresses current and upcoming forms of communication and how they influence eating disorders or can be used to spread eating disorder awareness, share research, or coordinate treatment. There are now a number of recovery-based applications for smartphones that seek to aid individuals struggling and can help connect patients’ data with their clinicians for easy sharing of food diaries and behaviors. Additionally, many eating disorders’ or body image organizations engage in social media, including the Academy for Eating Disorders, to share their mission.
Before we condemn social media, it is imperative to note both its strengths and weaknesses. Social media use is correlated with body dissatisfaction and self-objectification, but causality has not been established. If it is the case that individuals who already self-objectify are more likely to use Facebook or other forms of social media, they are a vulnerable population. To reach and help those individuals, social media could also be used for good.