New research finds that some college-age women use social media sites such as Facebook without any threat to body image.
University of North Carolina School of Medicine investigators found that when college-age women with a strong emotional connection to Facebook did not use the site to compare to their friends, they were less likely to struggle with risky dieting behaviors compared to their peers.
However, if a woman with a strong emotional connection uses Facebook to compare her body to friends’ bodies, she is at risk for risky dieting behaviors.
In the study, which will appear in the Journal of Adolescent Health, 128 college-aged women completed an online survey with questions designed to measure their disordered eating.
Researchers asked each woman whether she worried about her weight and shape and whether she engaged in risky behaviors such as using diet pills, vomiting after meals, or going on fasts.
They also asked questions about each woman’s emotional connection to Facebook — her incorporation of the site into their daily life, time spent on the site each day, number of Facebook friends — and whether she compared her body to her friends’ bodies in online pictures.
“We really wanted to examine how each college woman used Facebook when posting pictures online. Is she thinking, ‘I’m posting this picture to share a fun moment with my friends’ or is she thinking ‘I want to post this picture to compare how my body looks to my friends’ bodies,'” said Stephanie Zerwas, Ph.D., senior author of the study.
Prior research has suggested that the time a woman spends on social media is associated with a negative body image. In the new study, investigators wanted to see if this was always true.
They discovered greater Facebook intensity and online physical appearance comparison was associated with greater disordered eating in college-aged women. That is, when college women had a greater emotional connection to Facebook, they were more likely to compare their bodies to their friends’ bodies and engage in more risky dieting behaviors.
However, what the research team found next surprised them most. As long as women weren’t using Facebook to compare their body size and shape to their Facebook friends, being more emotionally invested in Facebook was associated with less concern about body size and shape and fewer risky dieting behaviors.
“I think that Facebook could be an amazing tool to nurture social support and connections with friends and families. And if you’re getting that kind of social support from the site, you might be less likely to be worried about your body size.
“But if you’re using it as a measuring stick to measure how your body appears in pictures compared to your friend’s body, Facebook could also be used a tool to foster dangerous dieting behavior,” said Zerwas.
Morgan Walker, B.S., was first author of the study and a college student while the study was underway. “While conducting this study, I couldn’t help but identify with the women in the study. It led me to examine my own social media habits,” Walker said.
“How do I spend my time on Facebook, and is it healthy for me? Having this research in the forefront of my mind made it easier to redirect my focus if I found myself falling into the trap of online physical or social comparisons.
“It’s also important to remember that one’s social media image is only an edited snapshot of their life, one that is likely not as perfect as it appears online.”