Spending a lot of time perfecting your selfies could be a sign that you're struggling with how you view your own body, according to new research published this week. It comes after another paper, based on the same survey, linked following a lot of celebrities and fitness accounts on Instagram to body image concerns, too.
These new papers, published in the the journals Computers in Human Behaviour and Body Image, add to a growing body of research which is beginning to show exactly which ways of using social media can be linked to poorer body image, and which can't. Essentially, psychologists are discovering what anyone who’s ever stopped and thought about how they use Facebook or Instagram might have already figured out – you can't lump all the different ways of using social media together.
"We're starting to try to understand what people are actually doing that may be related to poor body image," Amy Slater, a senior research psychologist at the University of West England in Bristol, and an author on the papers, told BuzzFeed News.
In total 259 women aged between 18 and 29 took a questionnaire that asked about their Facebook and Instagram use, and their body image concerns.
The data didn't show a relationship between how much time people spent on social media sites and having a poorer body image, and there was also no link between just taking selfies and having body image concerns. But the researchers did find that women who were more "invested" in their selfies – spending more time choosing a photo, or editing it – were more dissatisfied with their bodies, and had more signs of disordered eating.
The researchers also found that following celebrity accounts on Instagram, and engaging more with photos than anything else on Facebook, were associated with "body surveillance" – continuously monitoring what you look like, which is a risk factor for eating disorders. Following health and fitness accounts on Instagram was linked to something the researchers call "drive for thinness", which measures symptoms of disordered eating. But following travel accounts wasn't linked to any body image concerns.
The questionnaire only provides a snapshot of how people use platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and how they feel, so it can't prove one action causes the other. And a survey is not necessarily the best way to find out how someone actually uses social media, because people don't always remember, or report, their actions accurately. But it's a starting point.
The work was carried out by Rachel Cohen, a PhD student at the University of Technology Sydney, in Australia. All the women surveyed were Australian, but Slater thinks the findings should translate to women in the UK, too.
"I think it’s very likely that we’d see the same types of relationships with women here in the UK," she says. "I have done other research which is not suggesting anything different."
One big caveat that is worth noting, though, is that 77% of the women surveyed for the study identified as Caucasian. Slater acknowledges that failing to include a diverse group of women in research is a problem in her field and in psychology in general, where researchers often don't look much further than students at their own university when recruiting participants.
"It's unfortunately the case that for most of the research that's been done in this area so far, it's been done with white women or white adolescents," she says. "There’s definitely a load of research to be done to fully understand [how social media relates to body image] in more diverse groups of women."
To get away from self-reported data, Slater has been been running a study for a couple of years that involved friending a bunch of people on Facebook and recording what they actually do – looking, for example, at their last three profile photos, and how many comments and likes each of them got. "That's really really interesting," she says, but she's still in the process of analysing the data, so hasn't drawn firm conclusions yet.
Slater says she'd love to work with Facebook, too, to make it easier to do this kind of real world research, but hasn't been able to get anything off the ground so far, despite reaching out to the company a couple of times.
It's not all bad news for selfies and self-esteem.
"The studies do a good job of telling us a lot about the negative effects of selfie activity in terms of body image," Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, told BuzzFeed News, "but I'd be careful about drawing conclusions that are overly negative about selfie activity."
"There is some evidence, for example, that selfies can be self-affirmative and promote self-care, while challenging sexist, ageist and normative assumptions of 'what women should look like'," he says. A 2015 paper on NSFW Tumblr blogs published in the journal Body and Society included interviews with nine women who post photos of themselves on Tumblr and find it an "engaged, self-affirmative and awareness raising pursuit".
Slater agrees that selfies can be a source of empowerment. "The wonderful thing about social media is that we’re now generating our own content, rather than just having content dictated to us by brands and companies," she says.
"We're now seeing greater diversity of bodies, in shapes and sizes and colours, and we’re seeing pushback [against unrealistic images in the media], and we're seeing people create this positive body image movement, particularly on Instagram, and I think that can be really empowering for people, and beneficial."
There's evidence other social media activity could actually help body image, too. Slater ran another experiment which found that seeing quotes that urge you to be nicer to yourself can make women feel more positive about their bodies straight away. "We're now looking at ways you can alter your feed in a way that might make you feel more positive about your body," she says.
Until recently research in this area tended to look in very broad terms at how using social media relates to what women and girls, in particular, feel about themselves and their bodies. But the specifics are important, because that's what gives you enough information to actually help inform people's lives.
"It's starting to suggest some possible practical solutions, without just saying 'Alright everybody just get off social media', because that's not going to be a realistic or popular recommendation," says Slater.
She is working with Australian colleagues to evaluate a four-lesson "social media literacy" programme aimed at adolescent girls and boys and delivered in schools, to help young people be more critical about how they use social media. She says she's trying to do a similar thing in the UK, too, but is still looking for funding.
The researchers suggest that knowing what behaviours are linked to disordered eating could lead to "targeted interventions" and help women vulnerable to body issues, too.
"Eating disorders are serious mental health disorder and their causes are complex," a spokesperson from Beat, the eating disorder charity, told BuzzFeed News.
"We do know the ideals presented within social media can exacerbate the problem, and we encourage the promotion of healthy body image and ideals in this area."
“We certainly hear that people find the ‘perfect world’ presented on social media can make them feel insecure and pressured to keep up," Clare Keeling from Rethink Mental Illness told BuzzFeed News.
“As we spend more of our lives online and using social media, it makes sense that we will begin to recognise behaviours that might indicate someone is struggling with a certain issue or their self esteem."
“However it’s important we don’t ‘armchair diagnose’ anyone. If you are worried about someone’s mental health it’s always worth taking the time to check in with them, asking if they want to talk and suggesting they visit their GP if necessary."
Slater says, ultimately, the aim is to encourage people to think about how they're using social media, and if they could be using it in a way that helps them build themselves up, rather than feel bad about their body. "If they’re following particular types of celebrities on Instagram, how is that making them feel about themselves?," she said. "Are there other things they could be following, or other ways of presenting themselves, or interacting with people in this environment, that would make them feel good?"
Kelly Oakes is science editor for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Kelly Oakes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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