Cutting down on social media improves young people’s body image, study finds

A brief break of just a few weeks can make a difference.

Cutting down on social media use makes teens and young people feel significantly better about their body image, new research has found.

Even a brief break can make a difference: Halving the amount of time spent on sites such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok for just a few weeks can have a positive effect on their attitude to their appearance and weight.

Worries about body image can lead to mental health problems and, in some cases, are linked to self-harm and suicidal feelings.

Past studies have found a link between poor body image and social media use, but it’s unclear whether people with poor body image and mental health issues spend more time on social media or if social media use leads to an increase in body image and mental health issues.

The research, by the American Psychological Association, suggests it may be the latter.

“Adolescence is a vulnerable period for the development of body image issues, eating disorders and mental illness,” said lead author Gary Goldfield of Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute and lead author of the study.

“Youth are spending, on average, between six to eight hours per day on screens, much of it on social media. Social media can expose users to hundreds or even thousands of images and photos every day, including those of celebrities and fashion or fitness models, which we know leads to an internalisation of beauty ideals that are unattainable for almost everyone, resulting in greater dissatisfaction with body weight and shape.”

The research, published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media, involved 220 undergraduate students between the ages of 17 and 25. Participants had to be regular social media users (at least two hours per day on their smartphones) and exhibit symptoms of depression or anxiety.

At the start and end of the experiment, they were asked to respond to a series of statements about their overall appearance, for example. “I’m pretty happy about the way I look” and about their weight, including “I am satisfied with my weight”, giving a rating on a scale of one (never) to five (always).

Platforms including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr were tracked for the research.

Youngsters who were asked to restrict their social media use ended up cutting back to an average of 78 minutes a day, compared with 188 minutes for the control group.

The findings show comparable benefits in body esteem for both males and females, although the study authors note that because of the small sample size, meaningful conclusions on the effect of gender could not be made.

“Our brief, four-week intervention using screen time trackers showed that reducing social media use yielded significant improvements in appearance and weight esteem in distressed youth with heavy social media use,” said Goldfield.

“Reducing social media use is a feasible method of producing a short-term positive effect on body image among a vulnerable population of users and should be evaluated as a potential component in the treatment of body-image-related disturbances.”

The researchers are now conducting a larger study to see if reduction in social media use can be maintained for longer periods and whether that can lead to even greater psychological benefits.

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