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Social Media and Body Image

The Royal Society for Public Health’s (RSPH) 2019 “#NewFilters” report examined several impacts of social media on mental health and wellbeing. This included the negative impact social media can have on young people’s body image. It was reported that overwhelming exposure to body ideals could negatively contribute to an individual’s self-esteem and self-confidence. It was also revealed that young people felt pressure to conform to beauty ideals perpetuated and praised online, including the ideal for females to be thin and non-muscular, and for males to be broad and muscular. Furthermore, the pressure to achieve such ideals was found to encourage disordered eating. The NHS defines an eating disorder as an unhealthy attitude to food which can completely take over an individual’s life and make them ill. The critical population most vulnerable to eating disorders are young women aged 13-17 years.

Furthermore, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) reports that over a third of 15-year-olds in the UK can be classed as ‘extreme internet users’ who spend over 6 hours a day online. If the same age demographic are excessively using social media and are the most at-risk of developing eating disorders, then any link between social media and body image is notably concerning. Therefore, research into the association between social media and body image may be considered a public health priority.

While existing research has demonstrated a link between social media and body image; little research has focused on how social media impacts body image. This project will address this gap in the literature. The study will involve a widely-distributed online survey for 16-25 year-olds with a mixture of closed and open-ended questions. The survey will assess whether individuals attribute changes in their body image to social media use and if so, why. Any potential factors which may either alleviate or exacerbate the negative impact of social media on body image will also be identified.

Furthermore, existing research has compared the male and female experience of social media and body image and generally found a worse effect amongst females. However, little research to date has assessed how non-identifying and LGBT individuals experience social media and body image. This survey will, therefore, analyse how the experience of social media and body image might differ between males, females and LGBT+ individuals. Previous research has suggested that transgender individuals, in particular, are at an increased risk of disordered eating (Ellickson-Larew, Naragon-Gainey, & Watson, 2013) so research into the transgender experience of social media and body image is a high priority.

The RSPH’s 2017 #StatusofMind report compared different social media platforms according to their relative impact on mental health and wellbeing. However, no research has done this purely concerning body image. This study will, therefore, also assess which social media platforms contribute more to body image problems and why.

The prevalence of social media use amongst young people is astronomical and existing research into the impacts of social media on body image are incredibly worrying. Understanding how social media contributes to negative body image is critical as it will inform campaigns and policies to prevent the harmful effects of social media on body image and educate young people in the responsible and safe use of social media.

Further reading

About the Author

Co-Editor Isobel Ashby Isobel recently completed an MPhil in American History at the University of Cambridge, whereby she specialised in the history of reproductive rights and health. Outside of academia, she has campaigned parliament to protect women from domestic violence and has run workshops for women survivors of human trafficking.

Co-Editor Olivia Rowe Olivia  recently completed a BA in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, in which she specialised in social psychology and mental health. She spent her summer interning with the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS in Geneva and now works for the Department of Health and Social Care in children’s mental health policy.

Researcher Rhiannon Osbourne 

Rhiannon is a medical student from Cambridge interested in public health, human rights and sustainability. She is currently on a year out from studies pursuing work in global health. At the moment she's advocating for better access to medicines with the MSF access campaign, and will be working in research and policy for the Centre for Infectious Disease in Zambia next year.

Researcher Ines Grange Ines is a second-year student at the University of Cambridge. Alongside studying Politics and International Relations, she is part of the university’s Unicef on Campus Committee. She is deeply committed to issues related to women, politics and development.

Researcher Ananya Arora Ananya is a second-year medical student at Cambridge. She is really interested in public and global health. Aside from medicine, she enjoys debating, public speaking and kayaking in her free time.


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