Social media are not just a means of sharing your life with the world – they also open your life to praise (likes and positive comments) or criticism.
Thus, it is easy to see how avid use of such platforms (especially those with ample picture posts) can potentially promote body image and weight obsessions in those who may not be quite confident and happy about their appearance.
That this may not just be an interesting theory is suggested by two studies by Annalise Mabe and colleagues from Florida State University, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
In the first study 960 female college students completed an Eating Attitudes Test that included Dieting and Bulimia/Food Preoccupation subscales with items such as “I eat diet foods” and “I give too much time and thought to food.”
Duration of Facebook use was assessed with the question “How much time do you spend on Facebook per week?” with options ranging from 0 to >7 hours (average used tended to be just over 2 hours per week).
This study found a small but statistically significant positive relationship between the duration of Facebook use and disordered eating.
In the second study, 84 women, who had participated in the first study and endorsed Facebook use on a weekly basis were randomization to either spending 20 mins on their facebook account or finding information about the ocelot on Wikipedia and YouTube.
Participants with greater disordered eating scores endorsed greater importance of receiving comments on their status, and greater importance of receiving “likes” on their status. Those with greater eating pathology reported untagging photos of themselves more often and endorsed comparing their photos to their female friends’ photos more often.
Participants in the control group demonstrated a greater decline in weight/shape preoccupation than did participants who spent 20 min on Facebook. Furthermore post hoc comparisons supported a significant decrease in weight/shape preoccupation in controls.
Facebook use resulted in a preoccupation with weight and shape compared to an internet control condition despite several multivariate adjustments.
As the authors discuss, their finding,
“indicates that typical Facebook use may contribute to maintenance of weight/shape concerns and state anxiety, both of which are established eating disorder risk factors.”
In terms of practical implications of these findings, the authors suggest that,
“Facebook could be targeted as a maintenance factor in prevention programs. For example, interventions could address the implications of appearance-focused comments such as “you look so thin” or “I wish I had your abs,” in perpetuating the thin ideal on Facebook, much as “fat talk” perpetuates this ideal in everyday conversations. An adaption of the “Fat Talk Free” campaign as well as adaptations of media literacy programs could encourage girls and women in the responsible use of social media sites.”
Clearly, this appears to me as a rather fertile area for further research.
I’d certainly be interested in hearing about your experience with facebook and any effects it may have had on your body image or eating behaviours.
Mabe AG, Forney KJ, & Keel PK (2014). Do you “like” my photo? Facebook use maintains eating disorder risk. The International journal of eating disorders, 47 (5), 516-23 PMID: 25035882