Social Media and Body Image in Young Women: Examining the Positive and Negative Role of Appearance-focused Activities

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Media has been identified as an important contributing factor to the development of body image concerns and disordered eating. Recent research demonstrates a relationship between time spent on social networking sites (SNS) and body image concerns. However, less is known about which aspects of SNS use are most relevant. This program of research used a mixed-methods approach to examine the specific aspects of SNS that are related to body image issues and disordered eating in young women, as well as to explore potential aspects of SNS that may promote positive body image. Correlational studies (Papers 1 and 2) found that appearance-focused SNS use, rather than overall SNS use, was related to body image concerns in young women. Specifically, greater engagement in photo activities on Facebook, following appearance-focused accounts on Instagram (Paper 1), and greater investment in ‘selfie’ activities (Paper 2), were associated with body image concerns and eating disorder symptomatology. Moreover, self-objectification was found to moderate the relationship between photo investment and bulimia symptomatology (Paper 2). In an experimental study (Paper 3), brief exposure to body positive posts on Instagram was associated with improvements in young women’s positive body image, relative to thin-ideal and appearance-neutral posts. However, both thin-ideal and body-positive posts were associated with increased self-objectification relative to appearance-neutral posts. Furthermore, participants showed favourable attitudes towards body positive accounts with the majority being willing to follow them in the future. A content analysis of popular body positive accounts on Instagram (Paper 4) found that body positive imagery typically depicted a broad range of body sizes and appearances. Additionally, while a proportion of posts were appearance-focused, the majority of posts conveyed messages aligned with theoretical definitions of positive body image. Finally, Paper 5 discussed the potential benefits and disadvantages of ‘body positivity’ on social media in light of pop-cultural criticism, positive body image theory, and the available research. A case was made in support of this emerging content, as well as recommendations for future research. Overall, the findings of this thesis contribute to the existing body of research on the effects of social media on young women’s body image by clarifying the role of specific aspects of SNS use that may be most harmful and beneficial in order to provide best practice guidelines and prevention efforts for social media users who may be at risk of body image issues. Similarly, the results provide further support for the application of sociocultural theory of body image disturbance, objectification theory, and positive body image theory to the social media environment.
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