Isabella Brady ’24 (She/Her)
Ask yourself, how many times do you find yourself on your phone, comparing yourself to others on Instagram? Do you really feel all that good about yourself after you close that app? Individual presence on social media continues to grow every day, and with 57.9% of Instagram users being female, social media may be one of the most toxic mirrors to exist. Unfortunately, social media begins to consume our lives and plays a much bigger role than we can comprehend. Certain social media apps are detrimental because of a user’s ability to search for other accounts, specific hashtags, and see public profiles. Recent research has delved into the outcomes of Instagram posts and has constructed links between heavy social media use, eating disorders, and mental health disorders.
As we continue to look at how social media plays such a big role on body image and self-confidence, we must explore different phenomena in social psychology. The social comparison theory, a related phenomena, argues that “people compare themselves to others in order to fulfill a basic human desire: the need for self-evaluation.” The use of social comparison becomes troubling due to most photos on Instagram being highly edited and improved from the original depiction. In fact, when you take the steps to post a photo on Instagram, your first option is to filter or edit the photo. Along with that, many photos are edited outside of the Instagram app using face and body tuning tools. This leads to the concept of what many are beginning to call “Instagram versus reality.” Photos in the Instagram world are full of perfect lighting, angles, filters, and edits. Whether real or edited, these photos are what one may perceive as an accurate representation of others and cause the use of upward social comparison: the “mental comparisons to people who are perceived to be superior on the standard of comparison.” When one compares themselves to seemingly perfect images on Instagram, they typically experience the consequences of an upward social comparison, including heavy threats to self-evaluation and self-esteem, along with inferiority. Unfortunately, Instagram has set a precedent for the unrealistic images that are posted. This leaves us asking ourselves, why do we continue to compare ourselves to others when we know these are consequences?
In a recent experiment from the FSU Department of Psychology, Madeline Wick and Pamela Keel studied the correlation between posting edited photos and mental health measures. In this study, about 27% of females who approved of posting edited photos reported that they were hit with higher levels of anxiety when posting. The second stage of their study, aimed at correlating edited photos and increased concerns in weight, shape, and body image, found that “posting edited photos caused increased weight/shape concerns and reinforced urges to exercise and restrict food intake and anxiety.” Wick and Keel’s study displays the magnitude of pressure tied to posting a photo and further proves the connection between unhealthy behaviors and social media. Another study, conducted by the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University, looked at the correlation between social media posts of oneself and how one felt about their weight, shape, diet, and body. Experimenters hypothesized that there were greater levels of body image and eating issues when edited photos are involved. There was also greater concern with shape and weight, as well as more discomfort in one’s body when sharing self-photos. Both studies present concrete evidence for adverse consequences of social media.
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders states that eating disorders can be considered one of the deadliest mental health disorders, causing over 10,000 deaths a year, and is especially detrimental towards young girls, for up to 57% engage in a type of eating disorder action. While there have been countless efforts to bring attention to the social media illusion, researchers continue to see an upward trend surrounding the presence of social media posts and body image issues. The National Eating Disorder Association suggests a few different types of solutions to prevent those who may be affected, including choosing your media platform and unfollowing accounts that don’t make you feel good, limiting your social media and online screen time, and consistently reminding yourself of the “truth” before looking at posts or posting. Continue to remind your friends, peers, and family members to be cognizant of the harmful effects that social media may have on our brains. Finally, encourage your favorite influencers, retailers, and celebrities to promote healthy body ideals and stray from the social media fantasy we inhabit today. Social media can be a valuable component of our lifestyle; however, we must modify our use to be beneficial rather than allowing it to contribute to a decline in mental health.
Isabella Brady‘24 (she/her) is a psychology major and intended public health minor on the pre-health track from Winter Park, Florida. Isabella can be reached for comment at isbrady@ davidson.edu.