The story about the impact of all those ‘pretty friends’ in social media on self-esteem offers one good explanation for self-presentation fatigue. Researchers in the UK, Iowa and Ohio used Facebook to look at the impact on body image of selfies in social media vs. photos of celebrities and other beautiful people in magazines. They found that comparing oneself to 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,” the Today Show reported. In its coverage, the BBC reported that “the research, presented at a conference in Seattle, found no link with eating disorders. But it did find a link between time spent on social networks and negative comparisons about body image.” In an earlier (2013) study, researcher April Smith at Miami University of Ohio did find a link between “certain Facebook habits” and “symptoms of bulimia and over-eating,” according to Today.
When Today asked her why she thought friends’ photos had more impact than those of celebrities and models, Smith suggested, quite logically, that friends are more “real” to us than movie stars. They’re our peers, after all, right? So this must be an accurate representation of what they and their day-to-day lives look like, right? Nope. To put it in old-fashioned terms, people sometimes put their best foot forward in social media, posting their favorite and even using “photo-editing tools to shave off pounds or build cheekbones,” Today points out.
We all do this, right? Nobody wants to share a bad photo of themselves. But what we need to help our kids think critically about is how much focus on appearance and presentation might be too much. Obsession with appearance – our own and others’ – isn’t healthy in offline life either, and it may help our kids to know the impact that being overly focused on it in social media can have on their self-image. It depends on how we use it, but the mirror that is social media can be helpful or harmful, and it’s not always easy to look into in a critical way. But if we use it to understand and discuss different practices in it, it can be a tool for growing self-knowledge and -efficacy.
- Speaking of “photoshopping” (e.g., altering photos to make models look thinner), the Today Show article alluded to how can be done in social media as well as fashion magazines. In the Huffington Post, “Why Photoshopping Is a Matter of Life and Death for Many Girls,” leads with how the arrival of US TV in Fiji in the mid-’90s led to excessive dieting and eating disorders among Fijian teens.
- From Amy Jussel of ShapingYouth.org, “Truth in Advertising: A Bipartisan Body Image Bill Addressing Childrens’ Health” and “Biggest loser? Healthy eating. Weight loss is not entertainment”
- “Individual & social ’embodiment’ online: Important eating disorders study” (and other posts about eating disorders through the years)
- “‘Am I pretty?’ videos by teens”
- “Teens, social media & trolls: Toxic mix”