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Image manipulation on social media: the effects on young people’s mental health

Key points

  • Social media use has been linked to mental health and body dissatisfaction among young people

  • By normalising unrealistic body ideals, image manipulation is one factor contributing towards body dissatisfaction

  • Further research is needed to shed light on the impact of image manipulation on body image among young people

  • This could inform policy recommendations for social media companies

Social media platforms, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, are used by 1 in 4 people worldwide. The 16-24 age group are the most active social media users, with 91% using the internet to access social media sites. In recent years, there has been increasing public and scholarly interest surrounding the impact of social media use on young people’s mental health. However, the exact effect of social media use on mental health remains unclear.

The research findings so far have been mixed. Studies have shown that social media can benefit young people who experience mental health issues by providing a window into the experiences of others. Moreover, social media could provide a platform for delivering expert mental health information to young people. However, in this era of ‘fake news’, information shared on social media is not always reliable, and recent research has raised concerns about the possible detrimental effects of greater social media use on young people’s mental health. Specifically, studies have found an association between social media use and increased risk of anxiety and depression.

Given how many images are uploaded to social media platforms every minute, researchers have begun to investigate the impact of these images on young people’s mental health, and particularly body image. Body image is a prevalent cause of psychological distress among young men and women, with as many as 9 in 10 teenage girls reporting being unhappy with their body. Like other research in the field, the findings from studies looking at the relationship between social media use and body image have been inconsistent. However, the research largely suggests that greater social media use is associated with body-related concerns. For example, one study found that more frequent viewing of ‘fitspiration’ images on Instagram was correlated with greater body image dissatisfaction among young women.

A primary concern surrounding online photo sharing is that many social media sites, including Instagram and Snapchat, allow their users to manipulate images prior to sharing. It has been suggested that image manipulation contributes towards body dissatisfaction among young people, by normalising unrealistic body ideals. In line with this, one study found that among girls who shared photos of themselves on social media, higher engagement in manipulation of photos was associated with greater body-related concerns. Similarly, a recent study found that exposure to manipulated Instagram photos led to lower body image among adolescent girls. However, research is yet to examine the effects of image manipulation on body image among young men.

The relationship between social media use and mental health is complex. For example, it is plausible that those experiencing greater mental health issues and body image concerns are more likely to view digitally manipulated images on social media. Further research is needed to determine the directionality of this relationship.

At Polygeia, we aim to shed light on the effects of digital image manipulation on body image among young men and women. We are investigating the extent to which images are manipulated on social media, and our qualitative research is asking how image manipulation affects body image and mental health among young people. Our report will offer policy recommendations for social media companies, to ensure young people are protected when navigating the complex world of social media. The results will be available in Autumn 2018.

Further reading

About the author

MPhil Social and Developmental Psychology student at Cambridge. Likes tea and art.


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