Topic: Social media is a perfect environment to promote appearance concerns and eating disorders.
It has long been known that exposure to traditional types of media, such as magazines, movies, and television, can increase body image concerns in youths (Tiggermann & McGill, 2004; Tiggermann & Polivy, 2010). Given that young people are now turning to Internet sources rather than print media, the potential impact of social media on body confidence should not be overlooked. In this essay, I would argue that social media has a negative influence on body image concerns and can lead to detrimental consequences.
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Much research has indicated that mass media is considered the most influential and pervasive cause of body dissatisfaction (Thompson, Heingberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999; Tiggermann, 2011). Internalisation of ‘body perfect’ ideas and the stereotypes about body size begins when girls are as young as 3 years-old. It begins with baby girls’ exposure to mass communicated images of Barbie dolls, then moves to television advertisements and programs that celebrate ultra-thin models. It then culminates in early adulthood with appearance-focused conversations, fashion-focused stories, and picture-sharing on social networking websites. These factors have been found to promote unattainable beauty ideals of often photo-shopped women who are usually young, have a perfect body ratio and are incredibly thin. Although traditional media are still widely consumed, new forms of media or the Internet are being increasingly accessed. As of June 2017, approximately 52% of the world’s population has access to the Internet (Internet World Stats, 2017). Recent studies show that, as in traditional media, there are many places on the Internet that promote the stereotypical ideals of feminine beauty. For example, an analysis of advertisements aimed at adolescents on the Internet indicates that most figures used in the advertisements were young, thin, and attractive females (Slater, Tiggermann, Hawkins, & Werchon, 2011). Additionally, Tiggermann and her co-researchers found that Internet usage was related to greater internalization of thin-ideal, appearance comparison, body dissatisfaction, and the drive for thinness (Tiggermann & Miller, 2010).
Associated with the rise of the Internet are Social Networking Sites (SNSs). As of June 2017, there are 2.46 billion social media users around the globe, and 71 percent of internet users were also social network users (Statista, 2017). Social media sites differ from the traditional mass media in several ways. First of all, a large proportion of social networking sites are peer-generated, which means users are simultaneously information sources and receivers. Second, by affording users the ability to shape, customise and direct online interactions, contemporary media transforms what were once passive receivers of the formerly popular mass media, into full-fledged communicators, with self-efficacy, and personal agency. Third, social media are more personal than conventional impersonal mass media. Users can bond with each other using technology, and content can revolve around the self. Fourth, social media are interpersonally rich tools that offer graphics apps, videos, and transformative multi-media cues that give the feeling of presence, lending the opportunity to transport individuals to psychologically involving domains that can encourage suspension of belief and attitude change. Finally, while mass media has a large heterogeneous audience, social media sites cater to communities of individuals with the same interests, ideas, and opinions. They are fundamentally media of one’s peers.
An amount of research on sociocultural factors and body image has emphasised the role of social comparisons in explaining media effects on body image concerns (Thompson et al. 1999). According to social comparison theory, people find it diagnostic and functional to compare themselves to others, especially to those who have similar attributes that are central to their definition of self. This has important implications for the effects of social media. Aforementioned, social media are the domain of peers, and peer comparisons are greatly salient to adolescents. In addition, upward social comparisons with attractive peers can actually lead to more negative self-attractiveness ratings than comparisons with attractive models in advertisements, who are less similar and in a less diagnostic comparison group. Social media are full of pictures of peers and create a favourable environment for social comparisons. Negative comparisons can be particularly likely on social media when young women compare their pictures with peers without knowing that those photographs might be digitally edited. More specifically, one experimental study indicates that upward social comparison can occur with social media profiles. Both male and female participants reported negative emotional states and showed some signs of body dissatisfaction when they viewed profiles with physically attractive photographs, meanwhile, those who viewed unattractive users’ profile pictures reported less negative emotional states (Hafekamp & Krãmer, 2011).
Previous studies show that exposure to peers who closely match the thin ideal has been found to increase body dissatisfaction in women (Krones, Stice, Batres, & Orjada, 2005). It is also interesting to note that comparisons to peers and models can lead to different results in regard to women’s body image concerns. The reason is the appearance of peers seems to be more realistic and attainable than the appearance of models or celebrities because peers often have the same resources and lifestyle to oneself. In addition, in social media contexts, peers are not the only targets of social comparisons but online models or celebrities are as well. Beautiful pictures of models and celebrities are shared and posted on many social platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. They are usually airbrushed to remove any flaws and this, in combination with the efforts of professional staff (such as hairstylist, make-up artists, photographers, etc) ensures that there is a huge gap between what is thought of beautiful and what can be attainable. We are aspiring to an ideal that does not exist, when constantly exposed to images of unrealistic men and women that have been digitally constructed.
When we look at the negative influences of social media on body image concerns, exposure is not the only factor, we also need to look at the ways in which social media is used. Using social networking sites is far different than passive exposure to traditional mass media. It is an interactive process, users are capable of creating and presenting their own media content while also viewing content created by others. A classic perspective of mass communication is uses and gratifications. It indicates that individuals use media to satisfy needs, seeking gratifications to fulfil motives and deriving gratifications from media use that can be both psychologically functional or dysfunctional (Rubin 2009). When applied to social media and body image concern, it suggests that individuals who are vulnerable to body image disturbances will seek gratification from social media. Young people who have low self-esteem and high thin-ideal internalisation are likely to seek gratification from social media. They may check their profile pictures online to satisfy reassurance needs, spending a considerable amount of time looking and comparing their pictures to those of their less attractive peers to validate their appearance, or sharing pictures of celebrities and models to ritualistically escape appearance-related personal distress. By doing this, they try to satisfy psychological appearance-gratifying needs and convince themselves they fit the thin-ideal of others. Eventually, young people usually end up feeling disappointed and hurt because the ultimate satisfaction of these needs cannot come from external sources but can only be found internally.
Social media also unabashedly promote anorexic and bulimic lifestyles through a lot of pro-anorexia or pro-ana and pro-bulimia (pro-mia) Websites (Levine and Chapman 2011). Nowadays, there are many websites that devoted to promoting pro-anorexic ideals. They usually contain positive represent of an anorexic lifestyle; religiously-based metaphors; and more than 10 core themes, for example, perfection (the norms linking thinness with perfection), transformation (eating disorders can transform a person from ‘ugly’ and ‘fat’ to ‘thin’ and ‘beautiful’), and success (the association of success with strength and ability to keep the weight off). In addition, Healthy Living blogs promote the image of thin appearance and deliver disordered nutritional messages, and also containing self-objectifying messages about women (Boepple and Thompson 2013). Two experiments indicate that exposure to pro-ana Websites exerts a number of negative influences, such as lower self-esteem, and decreased perceived attractiveness of oneself (Bardone-Cone and Cass 2007). Pro-mia Websites can also have harmful effects for young women (Levine and Chapman 2011).
In conclusion, traditional media has long been known for its negative influence on body image concerns and behaviours through the promotion of ‘body perfect’ ideals, but there are far fewer studies on the detrimental impacts of social media. In this essay, I argue that social media provides a perfect environment for negative social comparisons and gratification that could lead to appearance concerns and eating disorders amongst users.
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