‘Like’ Facebook, Dislike Thyself

Social networking and high internet usage linked with poor body image in young girls

(RxWiki News) Like traditional media, the Internet has been known to tout ‘ideals’ of female beauty. Teenagers who spend hours on the web every day may fall victim to body image issues. 

Young girls are reported to spend an average of over 1.5 hours online per day, and this does not include time spent on homework. Social networking sites are popular haunts for teenagers who relish the experience of staying connected with their peers.

The effects of Facebook on these youth are being studied by researchers across the world. The concerns about Facebook and other social networking sites include cyberbullying and low self-esteem among others.

According to a new study, there appears to be a strong association between social networking usage and body image issues among young girls.

"Keep an eye on your teen’s internet usage."

The study was conducted by Marika Tiggemann, PhD, and Amy Slater, PhD, from the School of Psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia.

The aim of the study was to find out if there was a relationship between exposure to social networking sites and body image in young girls.

The researchers surveyed 1,087 girls from 18 schools in Australia during the first two years of high school. The average age of the participants was 13.7 years.

The girls were asked questions about how much time they spent on the Internet every day on average, excluding time spent on homework. The girls picked from several options ranging from 0 to 6 hours.

The participants were also asked to pick which websites they used regularly and their favorites among those. They also answered questions about their social networking habits on MySpace and/or Facebook.

The participants’ perception of body image was measured using different standard questionnaires. Three measures of body image perceptions were used: internalization of ideal, body surveillance and drive for thinness.

Internalization of ideal measured how much participants were affected by common perceptions of the ideal body image such as thinness and low body weight. Body surveillance measured the focus on external appearance and actions such as continually looking at the mirror. Drive for thinness measured the participants’ motivation to lose weight and get close to the ideal.

Higher scores on these measures signaled a negative perception of body image.

Most participants (more than 80 percent) used email, instant messaging, social networking and video websites. Around 20 percent reported using fashion, celebrity, gossip, shopping and magazine websites.

Facebook was the most popular website with 75.1 percent of participants reporting a Facebook profile page, compared to 46 percent for MySpace. The participants spent an average of 90 minutes on Facebook each day and an average of 34.3 minutes on MySpace.

Around 20 percent of the Facebook profiles were public. The participants had an average of 214.5 Facebook friends.

The study's results showed that the extent of internet exposure was significantly associated with internalization, body surveillance and drive for thinness. There was a higher association between MySpace or Facebook usage and these three factors.

Facebook users scored significantly higher than non-Facebook users on internalization, body surveillance and drive for thinness. The time spent on social networking sites was also associated with higher scores on these measures.

The authors suggested that creating user profiles on social networking websites might be partly responsible for appearance concerns among young girls. Also, the ease and speed of connecting with their friends on such sites might provide opportunities for comparisons with others and lead to poor body image.

According to the authors, “The study has practical implications for media literacy programs, which have shown some success in combating negative body image. Adolescent girls could usefully be educated to become more critically aware of the idealized images that are presented to them online, as well as of the potential appearance and other pressures involved in participation in social networking sites.”

One limitation of this study was that measures of Internet usage were broad and self-reported. The authors suggested more sophisticated methods such as computer tracking for future studies to get more accurate information.

In addition, the association between internet usage and poor body image does not mean that Internet usage was a direct cause of image issues. Studies that follow participants over a period of time are necessary for a better understanding of this relationship.

The results of this study were published in May in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

The study was funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council Discovery Project. The authors did not disclose any relevant financial relationships or conflicts of interest.

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Review Date: 
May 30, 2013