Health

Our 'pretty' Facebook friends may be bad for our self-image

April 10, 2014 at 5:26 PM ET

Fixating on the bikini selfies and duck faced-photos of Facebook friends can make a young woman feel worse about her own body than comparing herself to the most beautiful celebrities and models in fashion magazines, a new study finds. 

“The attention to physical attributes may be even more dangerous on social media than on traditional media because participants in social media are people we know,” the study’s authors argue.

The research, conducted by a team from the University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom, Ohio University, and the University of Iowa, supports other recent findings that social media can create damaging effects on young women.

For example, in a study released last November, psychologists from American University in Washington, D.C., found that middle and high school girls who immersed themselves in Facebook images of others had more weight dissatisfaction, a heightened desire to be thin, and tended to view their own bodies as objects. 

An Australian study released last September found that “Facebook users scored significantly higher on all body image concern measures than non-users.”

And in yet another study, released in July of last year, April Smith and colleagues, from Miami University in Ohio, found that certain Facebook habits could predict whether young women had more symptoms of bulimia and over-eating.

So what is it about social media that triggers body image problems, as opposed to, say, fashion magazines, or simply seeing the cute, popular girls around school?

First, though users often believe Facebook posts are more “real” than traditional media, Smith said, “they are not “an accurate representation of what’s going on in day-to-day life.” People post only their best images and they can use photo-editing tools to shave off pounds or build cheekbones.  

Second, Smith said, young women tend to post negative text like “OMG, I just ate a pint of Ben and Jerry’s” seeking soothing comments like “Don’t worry,” or “You’re so pretty it won’t matter.” Instead, they may get “You’re a fat pig.” That also leads to more body dissatisfaction.

Girls — boys, too — think famous celebrities or models are unique and out of reach. But the attractiveness of their peers, they think, ought to be attainable. Young women already engage in a lot of body and fat conversation, said Evelyn Meier, who led the American University study, and social media “blows that up. It magnifies it.”

Plus, Meier said, a young woman can sit and ruminate on a photo of a peer unlike simply seeing a popular, pretty girl walk by in a school hallway.  

The new study supports all these past findings. It surveyed 881 women, mostly white, on a Midwestern university. The women filled out lengthy questionnaires designed to screen and diagnose eating disorders. Most of the women, 86 percent, said they wanted to lose weight, a mean of 19 pounds.

On average they spent 79 minutes per day on Facebook. For women who wanted to lose weight, spending more time on Facebook was linked to more negative feelings about their bodies.

The results did not predict scores on the two standardized tests for eating disorders, but, explained co-author Yusuf Kalyango Jr., professor of journalism and communication studies at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, the women “who spent more time on Facebook were more likely to report body dissatisfaction,” an early sign of possible eating disorders.  

It wasn’t how much time spent on the site, Kalyango said, but how often and for how long they looked at photos of others “that actually indicated whether they were happy or unhappy."  

Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”


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