Today social media, especially Facebook, plays a big part in many of our lives. As well as providing a platform for online interaction with others, reading news and seeing an odd video about kittens, it is also shown to affect how we view ourselves – often in a negative way.
Senior Research Fellow Dr Amy Slater works at UWE Bristol’s Centre for Appearance Research (CAR), the world’s largest group of psychologists working on appearance and body image. One area Amy looks at is how social media and the internet can affect body image concerns, especially for adolescents and young girls.
Social media: taking peer pressure beyond the classroom
With regard to older age groups, Amy has investigated what it is about social media that is detrimental to self-image in young adults by observing what they do online. By setting up a research page on Facebook and asking the 200 participating 18 and 19-year-olds to ‘friend’ her, she was able to monitor their online behaviour.
Interestingly, the research gave rise to both expected and unexpected conclusions. For Amy, it is unsurprising that young people spend so much time on social media – often two to three hours per day. What surprises her is the extent users are invested in social media like Facebook.
Before the advent of user-generated content, it was traditional media, press and parents that influenced adolescents. However, social media appears to combine a traditional media element (with advertisements and idealised images of celebrities) with a peer-driven environment (with the opportunity for interaction and feedback). This could go towards explaining why it may be damaging for body image.
The problem is that while adolescents certainly take heed of comments at school, this environment used to end when they left the classroom. Now, young adults are on social media out of school hours and this perpetuates a forum for potentially harming conversations to continue. The researcher says her suspicion is that this continual access could potentially heighten damage to self-image.
The positive side of social media
Of course there are some positives in social media, says Amy. It has transformed what we traditionally perceive as media, except that we generate it ourselves. The media has often presented a very narrow view of what it considers as ‘ideal’ in life, with this ideal unrealistic and unattainable for most. Social media, on the other hand, offers the opportunity for increased diversity in what we see. Vloggers (video bloggers), for instance, have become hugely popular especially as these are ordinary people, and users appear to like this authenticity.
Even very young affected
Amy, who is a practising child psychologist, explains that poor body image can lead to reduced self-esteem, depression, poorer eating habits and unhealthy practices. Research shows the age at which females experience body image concerns has steadily lowered since the 1980s, when initial findings found it was mostly adult women who were discontent with their bodies. Later on, this negative body image was shown to exist among adolescents then, worryingly, in some girls as young as six.
Another part of Amy’s research looks at the sexualisation of females in online games. Along with UWE Bristol’s Dr Emma Halliwell, she has conducted a study on the impact of playing internet games on young girls’ body image and career aspirations. They have found that some easily-available games on the web, such as Dream Date Dress-Up often made girls aged eight to nine express a desire to be thinner immediately after playing.