A detailed analysis shows that there are 4.76 billion social media users worldwide, 59.4 percent of the total global population. Though it emerged just a couple of decades back, it has become one of the most popular sources of communication and an integral part of people’s lives. It helps them in their personal and professional relationships, keeps track of everyday news, and provides entertainment every day. Sadly, along with these positive advantages, many psychologists have highlighted the negative impact of social media on our mental health and body image.
Modern social media usage continues to increase through apps such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. Today’s users are engrossed in the different social media platforms so much that the first thing they check in the morning and the last thing they see before bed are the pictures on these platforms.
Constant scrolling through posts, particularly images of good-looking friends, models and influencers, provides unrealistic beauty standards in today’s society. With constant exposure to pictures posted online, it’s evident that there is a link to how individuals compare themselves and perceive their bodies with the so-called perfect body image leading to negative feelings about their bodies.
According to a Florida House Experience Health study, 87 percent of women and 65 percent of men compare themselves to others on social media. Regrettably, most users take extremely harmful measures to try to achieve those beauty standards. When this improbable standard isn’t reached, they consider themselves a failure for not living up to the standards of the ideal image of beauty. I say unlikely because most of the online content is highly edited and filtered with Photoshop to look perfect and attractive. A UK study found that 90 percent of young women use a filter or edit their photos. According to a 2017 Harris Poll, the global research company, nearly two-thirds of Americans edit their pictures before posting to become popular and successful. The image that gets posted does not represent a person’s true self
Photoshop and editing create a false fantasy world, causing users to be dissatisfied with their own bodies and looks. They become obsessed with doing anything to achieve the ideal image and ultimately fall victim to crash diets, eating disorders and low self-esteem. Of course, there are other causes of eating disorders, too, but this is one of the leading factors nowadays. This negative body image slowly leads to depression, mental stress, social anxiety and the use of harmful substances.
Alarmingly, 20 million people in America alone are estimated to suffer from eating-related disorders, and depressive symptoms in young adults increased by 63 percent between 2018 and 2019. In Canada, there was a 62 percent increase in eating disorders recorded between 2018–2019 and 2020, with researchers indicating the cause of the rise in social media use.
Dr Gemma Sharp, clinical psychologist and head of Monash University’s Body Image Research Group, says comparing users with these highly unrealistic body images can have far-reaching implications on their quality of life. “Body image is a crucial part of self-identity, so if our body image is negative, it impacts our overall self-perception, how we navigate the world, interact with people and do our jobs.”
Even editing one’s own images can affect how one perceives their body. According to research, taking and editing selfies is very harmful because it forces one to focus on and try to fix one’s imperfections.
According to a recent BBC article, images of fit people doing exercise, known as “fitspiration”, make young men and women more critical of their bodies, making them feel insecure. Researchers concluded that disordered eating symptoms increase with increased frequency of time spent on social media.
A 2020 study analysing 1,000 Instagram posts by males with well-built and slender bodies found that those posts received the highest likes and comments. This led users to too much exercise and disordered eating. Likewise, social media images of strong men influence younger boys to change their eating, exercise, and social habits
Men are expected to be physically strong as well as emotionally strong. Society expects men not to share their struggles or insecurities about their bodies. This leads men to avoid consultation for diagnosing and treating depression, eating disorders and body dysmorphia. This can have dangerous outcomes for the overall well-being of the male population.
Children are no exception. According to a paper published in the UK, children aged 6-10 years worry about their body weight.
Teenage is a crucial stage in developing body image. In the US, many teenage girls and boys engage in unhealthy behaviours such as self-induced vomiting, skipping meals, or taking laxatives. Dissatisfaction with the body can lead to depression, sadness and loneliness in teens.
Unfortunately, society considers body image issues more of a women’s issue. Though it’s believed that young females from 14 - 24 years of age are most vulnerable to body image concerns, anyone of any age and gender can suffer from body image issues. Even older men and women are affected. It’s important to create a space for everyone to discuss and get consultation for personal struggles with body image insecurities.
Though social media can negatively affect body image, mood, and overall mental health, it can also have effects on promoting body positivity. Following body-positive content(shows appreciation and acceptance for all types of bodies) on social media platforms can help individuals become more appreciative of their bodies. It could influence a person to strive to become healthier. Researchers have found that users feel better about their bodies after viewing body-positive content.
Moreover, it is important social media users use it in a positive way to avoid negativity:
• Don’t scroll mindlessly. Use it with a specific purpose and stick to it.
• Take a break from social media from time to time.
• Unfollow or mute accounts, people and images that make you anxious. Follow Those that make you feel happy.
• Constantly remind yourself that almost all the images have been edited, filtered or highly selected.
• Select a time and amount of time to spend online. It’s best not to use social media at night as it leads to sleep deprivation.
• Cut down the time you spend editing and posting photos expecting rave reactions.
• Appreciate what your body can do rather than focusing on what it looks like
• Practice self-love.
• Parents can discuss body image with their children frankly and follow suit themselves.
• Parents can encourage children to develop interests outside social media, such as sports, music or dance classes.
• Parents can also install parental guidance apps on their children’s devices that limit access to social media apps.
• Parents should avoid criticising their appearance.
• Fitness TikTokers should be empathetic and promote the parts of their day where they enjoy food.
Taking these steps could minimise the unhealthy effects on body image.
To curb the adverse effects due to exposure to social media images, Norway first introduced the amendment in July of 2021, and the United Kingdom and France followed suit by passing a bill outlining that when influencers post on social media, they must disclose that their bodies have been retouched or include a disclaimer.
Early intervention leads to better outcomes. If you think you, your child or one of your loved ones has already been harmed by the effects of social media or may have an eating disorder, talk to a doctor or mental health professional who can help to get treatment and recover.
Remember, social media platforms don’t define us or our worth.
Each person is unique and beautiful.
YOU are beautiful.
[Tasneem Hossain is a multilingual poet, columnist, op-ed and fiction writer, translator and training consultant. She is the Director of Continuing Education Centre, Bangladesh.]
1. Milmoe, Cecilia, Students say social media causes negative body image, eating disorders, The Daily Illini, February 21, 2022.
2. The Filter Effect: People Distrust Websites Because of Manipulated Photos, Global Newswire, May 18, 2017.
3. HOW SOCIAL MEDIA CAN AFFECT YOUR BODY IMAGE, Health Agenda
4. Noonan, Sarah, A new law now requires UK Influencers to declare if images of their bodies have been digitally altered, news.com.au, April 21, 2022.
5. Global Social Media Statistics, Datareportal.