A report on personal experiences of social media and strategies for building a positive relationship between social media use and body image.
This report will present the social media experiences of young people and other stakeholders that attended an engage event in May 2019 at Strathclyde University. It offers their recommendations on how to maintain a healthy social media life in regards to body image.
Body image is an integral part of young people’s identity and it can develop and change through life. Having body image concerns is quite common for all genders and is not necessarily a mental health problem; however, it can be a risk factor for various mental and physical health challenges.
Poor body image can be a trigger for disordered eating and a risk factor for low self-esteem, depressive symptoms and obesity. A global study of teenage girls showed that nine out of ten UK girls with low body esteem said they avoided meeting friends and family or trying out for a team or club.
A recent report by the Mental Health Foundation showed that poor body image can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, shame, upset and even thoughts of suicide among UK adults and teenagers.
Body image forms under many personal and societal influences, including friends and family, the media, advertisers and our culture as a whole. Traditional mass media and social media play a big role in affecting body image concerns.
Positive body image: what is it?
Positive body image is not simply the absence of negative body image. It is its own multifaceted and holistic concept. In includes appreciation of the features, functions and health of the body and body acceptance and love, even if one is not entirely satisfied with all aspects of their body. Seeing beauty in a broader way in oneself and others is also part of positive body image.
People with positive body image also regularly take care of their bodies in non-destructive ways to maintain their style and personality. This is an expression of their self-love and inner positivity.
Finally, positive body image helps people to filter relevant information by accepting supportive information and rejecting information that may threaten it. This last part is especially important for a healthy social media experience because it would allow users to ignore or outright reject harmful body-related information they encounter online.
This report presents the outcomes of a public event organised by University of Strathclyde and MHF-Scotland in Spring 2019, which included 50 people from 15 different organisations throughout Scotland, including pupils, teachers, social media influencers, mental health charities, youth charities, NHS, etc.
The aim of the event was to share personal experiences from social media interactions and to discuss strategies and possible solutions for building a positive relationship between social media use and body image.
Participants discussed how they present on and off-line, and how this may differ with face-to-face communication and how they feel when on social media. They also identified specific negative and positive behaviours on social media, and possible strategies for healthy social media use.
Social media experiences
Read some quotes from participants surrounding their experiences of social media
Participants discussed who they are on social media and who they are in face-to-face communication. Overall, their image on social media was described with more negative terms than positive ones. For example, participants described themselves on social media as “fake”, “brutal”, “exposed to hate”, “judgemental”, “critical of self”, “jealous”, and under “pressure to be liked”.
Participants described themselves on social media as “fake”, “exposed to hate”, “judgemental”, “critical of self”, “jealous”...
Other more nuanced descriptors included “filtered”, “guarded”, “self aware” and “cautious”. Some positive descriptors of their social media persona did come through, such as “happy (too)”, “confident”, “invincible”, “ego/esteem boost”, “open for sharing emotions”.
Content management was mentioned, where users post at specific times of the day, which will give them exposure to the largest audiences. Participants’ face-to-face image was much more positive in comparison. They described themselves offline as “open”, “genuine”, “honest”, “less image conscious”, “more open – share more”, “trusting”, etc.
They described themselves offline as “open”, “genuine”, “honest”, “less image conscious”, “more open – share more”, “trusting”, etc.
In general, in addition to the positive – negative frame of responses, a second dichotomy emerged between authenticity and deception, where people described themselves more often as authentic in the offline environment and talked more often about deception online.
Participants discussed their feelings and behaviours while on social media. Overall, negative descriptors twice outweighed positive ones, which corresponds to the research we noted earlier. A closer look at users’ experiences online revels a more intriguing picture.
The most common experience was witnessing the “perfect” life or the “perfect” bodies of others on social media. This tendency for “only posting good days” or for sharing only “perfect pictures, exciting experiences” was related to feelings of anger and frustration for its lack of realism and unattainability, and was identified as an unhelpful online behaviour by many.
The most common experience was witnessing the “perfect” life or the “perfect” bodies of others on social media.
This desire for presenting an ideal self online is closely related to content management. Many users shared practices of deleting photos, which do not garner enough likes or attract a negative comment, pressure to produce content and maintain a certain image, awareness of the differences between platforms and audiences. These practices are similar to work by marketers and advertisers and have been discussed by researchers as containing the characteristics of work rather than play.
This “perfect” and competitive atmosphere also triggered judgement and criticism, participants said. They shared feeling “judged”, “judgemental”, “aware of criticism”, “unkind” and “very self-critical”. Certain gender differences were also highlighted, with comments such as “girls are more critical” and “girls are worse than boys about each other”.
Other common themes were those of comparisons and pressure. Comparing to others in terms of photos or just life overall was a common experience. And this constant comparison could be linked to feelings of pressure. This was described as “life pressure/expectation”, “pressure to conform”, intensified competition on social media, and “struggle to keep up to date”.
“Life pressure/expectation”, “pressure to conform”, intensified competition on social media, and “struggle to keep up to date”.
However, not all experiences are negative. Many comments related to issues of community and connectedness: “part of a community of support”, “positives in social media too – grassroots”, “connected”, “accessible”, and “can reduce isolation”.
Overall, when asked which behaviours online they can identify as not helpful, the posting of only positive, perfect or unattainable photos and content was mentioned most often. Other unhelpful behaviours, already discussed earlier, included being judgemental, unkind or hurtful, and comparing oneself to others.
Positive behaviours and proposed strategies
Finally, participants shared their positive behaviours and existing strategies they use to maintain a healthy social media life and a positive body image.
4) Manage your online content for a positive experience
Users can curate for themselves content and an overall environment which is protective, supportive, and enhances their experiences. This proposed strategy also directly relates to positive body image, which itself can serve as a protective filter when processing information.
5) Be self-aware: think of how you respond to certain content and how that may affect you and others
This related to being aware of how some posts and content make you feel. What type of content or people trigger negative reactions in you? What are those negative responses? Why do you think you are experiencing them? What can you do about it?
6) Allow and encourage young people to lead the discussion on this issue
Finally, young people’s role as leaders on this issue was highlighted repeatedly, as they are the heaviest users of social media and the main targets of its influences. Schools or youth services could be where these conversations take place, as well as in the media and other public spaces.
Additional suggestions shared by participants:
- Blocking posts and unfollowing negative influences
- Including diverse and dissenting voices, causes, people with different bodies
- Seeking out what makes you feel positive or uplifted
- Being more mindful of what you’re looking at and the time you’re wasting
- Realising you have a choice
- Realising social media’s role – it doesn’t have to take over your life
- Being mindful of other people’s negative habits
- Promoting and sharing positive ideas: body image, equality, etc. for wider recognition
- Using closed forums to share “real” experiences and celebrate positives
- Challenging things
- Putting the phone down, reducing time online or setting a limit
- Considering your content and the viewers consuming that content
Samaritans: If you need someone to talk to then Samaritans are available on 116 123 (UK) for free, 24/7. They are there to talk to, listen and they won't judge or tell you what to do.
Mind: If you are looking for professional support then Mind can help you with their Infoline. They can find information for you on what support is available in your local area. You can call them on 0300 123 3393 (UK), they are available Mon - Fri 9am - 6pm.
Beat: If you want to speak to a trained eating disorder helpline support worker then you can call Beat's helpline on 0808 801 0711 (UK) they are open 365 days of the year 12pm - 6pm Mon - Fri and 4pm - 8pm weekends and bank holidays.
CALM: If you want emotional support as a man or for a man in your life then you can call CALM's helpline on 0800 58 58 58. It is for men in the UK who are down or have hit a wall for any reason, who need to talk or find information and support. They're open 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year.
Maytree: If you are feeling suicidal or are having suicidal thoughts you can contact Maytree. Maytree have a house available for people at moments when they're feeling suicidal. They offer a free 4 night, 5 day stay for adults, with the opportunity to be heard in complete confidence, in a caring, safe environment. You can contact them on 0207 263 7070.
Urgent professional help: If you are concerned that you are developing a mental health problem you should seek the advice and support of your GP as a matter of priority. If you are in distress and need immediate help and are unable to see a GP, you should visit your local A&E.