Whistleblowing Facebook – why social media is damaging to young girls’ body image

Exposure to idealised face and body images on Instagram decreases women’s perceptions of their own attractiveness and increases body anxiety, research shows.

By Dr Danielle Wagstaff

Frances Haugen’s explosive accusations about the social media giant Facebook allege knowledge of the dangers of their platforms. One of the main allegations concerns algorithms that keep young women on Instagram glued into content that is damaging to their mental health and body image.

With a wealth of research exploring the effects of social media use on body image, including in-house research by Facebook, which owns Instagram, it’s clear that the platforms have the potential to affect how we view our bodies. The question that remains is just how damaging can they be? Whether Facebook is malicious enough to use this information to deliberately cause harm or not, more than 20 years of research has taught us a great deal about the ways in which media influences us.

Humans are inherently social creatures, and we evolved in small groups of about 150 people. The environment in which we evolved was fraught with danger, so you definitely wanted to make sure you stuck with your tribe. Fitting in with the group means you get to avoid exclusion and potential danger — anyone who’s ever felt socially excluded knows the power it wields. Fitting in also means that we have a pretty good sense of who we are, keeping our self-esteem stable, and means that we are likely to make and keep friends and romantic partners.

While we mostly don’t live in these environments anymore, we still possess many of the same desires, and to know whether we’re fitting in we need to compare to those around us. According to Social Comparison Theory, the combination of upwards social comparisons (comparisons to those who seem to be doing better than us) and downwards social comparisons (comparisons to those who seem to be doing worse than us) gives us the information we need to make micro-adjustments to our behaviour, our attitudes, and even our appearance.

In your everyday life, you typically balance the upward and downward social comparisons, which ultimately doesn’t do much damage to our self-esteem. Social media, though, isn’t real life. Users can edit their photos and videos with a myriad of filters within the platforms themselves or download and add editing software right onto their phones.

Businesses and the more tech-savvy can use sophisticated computer software to manipulate images in ways that are normally undetectable, smoothing skin tone here or adding some curves there. Long story short, many of the images you see on social media are handpicked to sell us a certain look, however unrealistic and unattainable.

A highlight reel of people’s lives

This is where we start to see some potential problems. Since so much of social media is a deliberately curated look, one that’s designed to sell us a lifestyle or product or to convince us that we should look that way too, it comes to warp our vision of what’s normal. Suddenly, rather than having a mix of upwards and downwards social comparisons, we see everyone living their best life and often feel inadequate in comparison. Instagram is a particularly damaging platform due to the nature of its content, as a highlight reel of people’s lives.

Research conducted at Federation University has demonstrated that more time spent on Instagram is related to anxiety, depressive symptoms, and body dissatisfaction. What’s more, exposure to idealised face and body images on Instagram decreases women’s perceptions of their own attractiveness and increases body anxiety. This can lead to far more insidious consequences, including eating disorders and worse. Does it help if we know that photos are retouched? Not really, as research shows girls find both untouched and manipulated photos to be realistic, and exposure to the manipulated photos decreases their body image.

The removal of likes from Instagram images in Australia was touted as a great move by the platform. However, the evidence of whether viewing likes even affects body image is mixed, with some researchers finding no effect of likes on women’s body image and others finding that being more invested in likes affects body comparisons. However, recent research shows that time spent online alone may not be the best predictor of negative outcomes. Instead, emotional investment in Instagram can have far more damaging effects.

Emotional investment

And here’s where the real danger lies. Young women and girls are particularly vulnerable to becoming emotionally invested in a platform that is so aesthetically desirable, that tells them what to do to fit in, and creates an addiction to feedback. On Instagram, popularity wins.

The pressure girls feel to fit in and emulate their idols is immense, as is the pressure to create desirable content and become an influencer, and Instagram only feeds into this desire. Since the most popular content is that which adheres to the unattainable, this encourages girls to go to extreme lengths to fit the aesthetic.

So, who’s responsibility is it to fix this? Should we just be telling girls to get off the internet? This is an unrealistic goal. Given so much of our life is lived online, we need to be empowering our young girls and women to increase their social media literacy and to be more self-compassionate.

Platforms also have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of their users. What does this look like, and has Facebook done anything wrong? It’s not clear at this stage, but it seems we are at a pivotal moment in the history of social media platform responsibility.

Dr Danielle Wagstaff is a Psychology Lecturer in the School of Science, Psychology, and Sport

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