The Effects of Social Media on Body Image
The advent of the internet and web-enabled cell phones has heralded a sea change in how people communicate and access information. This combination has paved way to numerous social networking sites where people interact by sharing messages, videos, or photographs. Correspondingly, mass media like TV and magazines have also enhanced information accessibility. As the use of media becomes prevalent, there are concerns about its effects on the society. The public discourse and the scholarly community have fiercely debated on the degree at which media, particularly social media influences behavior. While the concerns about media influence touches diverse areas, the potential influence on girls and women’s body has claimed a central share. The media plays a major role in communicating perceptions of cultural stereotypes concerning body image. Researchers establish that exposure to media can impart distorted images of female beauty, which is internalized by users who start making appearance comparison. This paper aims to explore the effects of social media on body image in regards to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and appearance comparison.
Perloff notes that the number of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites has greatly soared (2014). These websites promote anorexic and bulimic lifestyles through depiction of thinness as perfection of beauty. Accordingly, healthy lifestyle blogs emphasize thin ideals and perceive that eating disorders can transform an individual from fat to thin and attractive (Perloff, 2014). Perloff also cites two studies by Bardone-Cone (2006) and Cass (2007) that revealed that exposure to these websites leads to lower self-esteem and body dissatisfaction (2014). Another study by Tiggemann & Slater (2013) indicates the association between internet exposure and the internalization of thin ideals (Perloff, 2014). Perloff however states that these studies are limited because they focused on short-term effects and understate the role of individual susceptibility in the media influence. Responding to the need for a nuanced approach that considers the transactional, dynamic influence of media, Perloff established a model of social media influences to guide future studies (2014). He explains that social media effects are complex and therefore, it is unrealistic to expect simple, direct influence on body image. Furthermore, researchers have failed to indicate clear-cut effects of media on body image. An exposure to social media and social comparisons with thin friends does not result in body dissatisfaction. Similarly, the use of social media is not likely to cause eating disorders on adolescent girls and women. Contemporary theory concepts establish that media influences involve a complex transaction between social and mass media content and what a user brings to media in regards to personality, social situational constraints, and needs (Perloff, 2014). According to Crocker et al. (2003), as cited by Perloff, self-worth is domain specific and thus, low self-esteem, depression, and perfectionism are the major drivers of body image perceptions. Putting this perspective into account, low self-esteem is likely to cause body dissatisfaction when women have appearance related concerns.
Various studies have attempted to link social media use and body image dissatisfaction. Fergusson et al., (2013) conducted a study to determine the degree at which social media, peer competition, and television influences body image dissatisfaction and eating disorders symptoms. The research involved a sample of 237 pre-adolescent and adolescent girls of ages between 10 and 17. The 6-month long study measured body mass index, television exposure, peer competition, and social media use. The outcomes were analyzed in terms of body dissatisfaction, eating disorder symptoms, and life satisfaction. The results indicated that peer competition played a major role in body image dissatisfaction issues, rather than social media use. This is in line with Perloff’s model, which posits that the simple exposure to social media does not cause body dissatisfaction. While many studies have narrowed the focus on social media, a study by Cohen & Blaszcszynski (2015) examined the difference between social media particularly Facebook influence and conventional media influence on body dissatisfaction. The research involved 193 first year University female students who were exposed to thin-ideal images on Facebook and conventional media. Thin-ideal internalization, self-esteem, Facebook use, and appearance comparison was measured. Facebook was found to have a salient influence on body image dissatisfaction and revealed higher risk of eating disorder compared to conventional media (Cohen & Blaszcszynski, 2015).
Using the model of social media influences, Perloff (2014) explained how social media can affect body image dissatisfaction and eating disorders. Social networking sites like Facebook and Intagram enable creation and exchange of media messages on certain body images in a more interactive way compared to conventional media. The first motivation that can enable media influence is gratification-seeking (Perloff, 2014). Individuals use social media actively to fulfill desires that can be psychologically functional or dysfunctional. Thus, individuals with different needs like improving appearance are more vulnerable to body image dissatisfaction. For instance, young adult women with low self esteem and high in perfectionism and appearance-based self-worth will use social media to seek physical and social attractiveness. Such groups are more likely to be influenced by thin-ideal images on social media. Another motivation is social comparison. Perloff cites Suls & Wheeler’s (2000) work that establishes that individuals find it diagnostic to compare themselves to others particularly those with similar attributes that are highly valuable to them (2014). When social media users fail to favorably compare themselves to their peers, they end up with body image dissatisfaction, depression, and low self-esteem. However, Turner (2014) offered suggestions on how Perloff’s model can be reconfigured to not only consider deleterious effects but also salutary effects in order to achieve more effective results in this field. Using the theory of affordances, Turner contends that a centralized approach to the “form, function, attributes and and/or affordances of social media” should be included in the proposed model of social media influences (Turner, 2014).
As the use of social media becomes prevalent, there are concerns about its effect on the society. Researchers have established that social media influences the users’ behaviors through images and messages portrayed. Body image, particularly of young girls and women, has received a central attention in the studies of social media effects. Studies have found out that the prevalent depiction of thin-ideal images on social media leads to body image dissatisfaction and eating disorders among girls and women. However, none of the studies has produced clear-cut results on the effects of social media in regard to body image dissatisfaction and eating disorders. This is because social media is complex and therefore its effect on body image is not only caused by simply exposure to thin-ideal images. While the need for improved research has been noted, it is evident that social media can influence various cultures including body image where women seek to look like the idealized thin images.
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