Is a healthy social media possible? Keeping a positive mind-set about our bodies online and offline
By Petya Eckler, University of Strathclyde
As we spend endless days and weeks within the four walls of our homes in lockdown UK – with others or alone, with balconies or gardens or maybe just a window – many of us wonder how we’ll emerge from this isolation. “Divorced, broke, depressed, fat,” predicted one joke floating around Facebook yesterday. A before-and-after-lockdown photo showed Aquaman at quarantine day 1 who had turned into Rubeus Hagrid from Harry Potter by day 30. A meme shared by a friend showed a woman in lockdown making bread and mistaking her own protruding belly for the dough. My baking group posted a Fitbit photo between the waffles and scones, so we don’t feel fat from looking at all the food photos.
Even amidst a deadly pandemic, we still worry about how our bodies will look when they emerge from this crisis. All this isn’t entirely surprising though, as body image concerns are widespread and affect most of us even under normal circumstances.
My research on female university students in America showed that 86% of participants wanted to lose weight and the difference between their real and ideal weight was close to 9 kilograms on average. That was despite the fact that the mean weight of the study sample aligned with the mean weight of 19-year-olds in the country. In other words, people of healthy weight can also have poor body image.
Body dissatisfaction is a universal problem too. A 2017 research report by Dove on 10-17-year-old girls in 14 countries showed that “only 46% of girls globally had high body esteem.” Of the countries studied, the UK was in the bottom three and only China and Japan scored worse. In the UK, 39% of girls had good body image. The consequences from such poor attitudes are widespread and serious. Nine out of 10 girls in the UK with low body esteem reported skipping meals, avoiding meeting friends and family or trying out for a team, according to the report.
Poor body image can be a challenge across the lifespan. Many middle-aged women face the same challenges of being dissatisfied with their bodies and placing too much importance on shape and weight for their self-concept, and one study has reported that 54 is the age when the average woman is least satisfied with her body. Men aren’t immune to doubts either, as many worry not only about their body weight and shape but also about hair loss and other issues.
While poor body image is experienced by people of all ages, it remains in sharper focus among children and young people. The frequent use of social media by this age group poses an additional challenge as researchers, educators and parents keep asking how these two factors intersect.
The above-mentioned research on American university students did in fact show a relationship as more time spent on Facebook related to more body and weight comparisons, more attention to the physical appearance of others and more negative body attitudes after viewing posts and photos. For the young women who wanted to lost weight (the vast majority of the sample), more time on Facebook also related to stronger symptoms of disordered eating.
These results surprised many when they were first publicised in 2014 and sparked significant coverage and debate in the mainstream media. But what I found surprising was the huge interest in the topic among young people, their parents and teachers. They were curious to learn more and eager to discuss how they engage with social media and how they feel about it.
As social media has continued to develop over the years, the discussion of its benefits and drawbacks has also advanced. Young people no longer wonder if spending long hours on Instagram affects them. They know that it does. Now, they’re looking into ways to address the drawbacks while preserving the social benefits. Nobody is talking about going back to the dark ages before social media (except maybe a few nostalgic Gen Xers!), but many are interested in creating a more rewarding experience there.
Societal thinking around policy has also changed. As social media companies are increasingly perceived as profiteers selling either content or personal data, calls for regulation have intensified. Change in that direction is already evident in Instagram starting to remove harmful content and the Adverting Standards Authority requesting influencers to tag promotional posts. I expect this trend to intensify in the future.
#HealthySocialMedia event & report
In this more complicated social context, I organised a public event in spring 2019 with the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), which gathered over 50 people from 15 different organisations in Scotland, including pupils, teachers, social media influencers, mental health charities, youth charities, NHS, etc. The aim of the event was to share personal experiences from social media interactions and discuss strategies for building a positive relationship between users and their digital lives. The event followed up last year’s Mental Health Awareness Week by the MHF, which also focused on body image.
Young people discussed their social media persona versus their offline persona. Online, they admitted to being “fake”, “brutal”, “exposed to hate”, “judgemental”, “critical of self”, “jealous”, and under “pressure to be liked”. Other more nuanced descriptors included “filtered”, “guarded”, “self-aware” and “cautious”. Some positive descriptors of their social media persona did come through, such as “happy (too)”, “confident”, “invincible”, “ego/esteem boost”, “open for sharing emotions”. Offline though personalities were much more positive in comparison: “open”, “genuine”, “honest”, “less image conscious”, “more open – share more”, “trusting”, etc. Young people also described themselves more often as authentic in offline interactions and talked more about deception in online interactions.
When discussing their feelings and behaviours on social media, participants used negative descriptors twice more often than positive ones, which corresponds to prior research. The most common experience was witnessing others’ “perfect” lives or “perfect” bodies on social
media. This tendency for “only posting good days” or for sharing only “perfect pictures, exciting experiences” was related to feelings of anger and frustration. This “perfect” and competitive atmosphere also triggered judgement and criticism, participants said. They shared feeling “judged”, “judgemental”, “aware of criticism”, “unkind” and “very self-critical”. Other common themes were those of comparisons and pressure. Comparing to others in terms of photos or just life overall was a common experience.
Gender differences were also highlighted, with comments such as “girls are more critical” and “girls are worse than boys about each other”. Learn more about the representation of women in the media and societal expectations in the ongoing online course Gender Representation in the Media. For the full report from the event, which contains proposed strategies for a better social media experience, visit our project website.
Scottish Government Advisory Group
2019 was the year for body image research and advocacy in many ways. The Scottish Government formed the Healthy Body Image for Children and Young People Advisory Group. Led by the MHF and Beat - the eating disorders charity - it looked to review the issue. For six months, we listened to evidence from various groups of young people and their experiences of body image.
At the end of our tenure, we released a recommendation report in March 2020, which offered our revised definition of good body image. We emphasised that body image is not just an individual’s problem, but is shaped by many outside influences: the media and advertising, policy and regulation, public health messaging (remember Cancer Research UK’s anti-obesity campaign?), relevant professionals in young people’s lives, schools, parents and families.
We call for bold changes in how we all see our own and other people’s bodies and how we talk about them in public and in private. Too often behaviour change is left to individuals who struggle to turn against the tide. How can a young woman feel beautiful when all the adverts she sees tell her that she needs this face cream, that lip filler or this diet to look better? How can a 10-year old boy appreciate his body when his parents regularly tease him about his weight? Young people cannot change until we change with them. The report lays out a road map for societal change in Scotland and hopefully beyond.
The Scottish Government is expected to address these recommendations after the COVID-19 crisis is over. And we all will have to do our part too. But for now, let’s just stay home, indulge in our favourite activities, exercise when we can, and be kinder to each other (and ourselves!) online and offline. In fact, the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 is - quite fittingly - KINDNESS. You can also learn more about body image and how it relates to gender and the media in the ongoing online course Gender Representation in the Media. We have dedicated a full week on the topic and look forward to hearing about your experiences and views!