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  • A new study has found that teens and young adults who decrease social media use feel better about their body image.
  • The research involved 220 undergraduate students between the ages of 17 and 25.
  • With young people spending between six and eight hours every day on screens, experts say there are steps young people can take to counteract some of the negative aspects of social media.

A new study published today found that distressed youth who reduced their social media use by 50% for just a few weeks saw significant improvements in their attitude about their body image.

The research, published in Psychology of Popular Media involved 220 undergraduate students between the ages of 17 and 25.

Researchers found that young people who reduced their social media use felt better about their appearance and weight.

“Adolescence is a vulnerable period for the development of body image issues, eating disorders and mental illness. Youth are spending, on average, between six to eight hours per day on screens, much of it on social media,” Gary Goldfield, PhD, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute said in a press release. “Social media can expose users to hundreds or even thousands of images and photos every day, including those of celebrities and fashion or fitness models, which we know leads to an internalization of beauty ideals that are unattainable for almost everyone, resulting in greater dissatisfaction with body weight and shape.”

“Reducing social media use is a feasible method of producing a short-term positive effect on body image among a vulnerable population of users and should be evaluated as a potential component in the treatment of body-image-related disturbances,” Goldfield said.

What the study found

The participants were regular social media users, using social media for at least two hours a day on their phones. The participants also all exhibited symptoms of anxiety or depression.

At the beginning of the experiment, the participants responded to statements about their appearance and weight on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (always). Statements included things like “I’m pretty happy with the way I look”.

In week one of the experiment, the participants used social media normally. Their use was tracked using a screentime program.

In the second week, half of the participants reduced their social media use to no more than one hour every day.

Those who restricted their social media use reduced it on average by 50% to roughly 78 minutes per day for the remainder of the study. The other group continued their social media use for an average of 188 minutes per day.

The participants again then responded to the statements about their appearance and weight.

The researchers found those who restricted their social media use had a significant improvement in how they felt about how they look and their body weight.

Adds to research on social media harms

Shane Owens, PhD, a board certified behavioral and cognitive psychologist, says the results of the study aren’t surprising.

“It makes sense that teens who reduce their social media use would feel better about their weight and appearance. Social media is full of carefully selected near-perfect or filtered images that distort the user’s sense of reality. Apps and their algorithms are designed to draw the user’s attention. Social media lures you into spending more time with people who will make you feel bad about yourself,” he told Healthline.

The researchers say the study is a proof of concept that reducing social media use could have a short-term positive impact on body image.

“Social media floods us with sensational images. When we look at celebrities and influencers, most of their posts are designed to make you like them more and want to be like them,” Owens said. “But we’re seeing only a meticulously filtered and curated version of reality. It is unlikely that anyone’s truth is as wonderful as it appears on social media. Comparing ourselves to what we see online is bound to make us feel bad about ourselves.”

But researchers say more research is needed, and are working on an additional study with a larger group to see if the positive impacts seen in this study will be observed over a longer period.

Mental health concerns for teens

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 42% of high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness for at least two weeks and stopped doing usual activities in that time. Nearly 60% of female students also felt this way.

With young people spending between six and eight hours every day on screens, experts say there are steps young people can take to counteract some of the negative aspects of social media.  

Owens said spending more time off social media and more time engaged in real-life relationships can also have a beneficial impact on young people and their self-esteem.

“Kids should spend time in real life with those who bolster their self-image. While social media presents us with a distorted, overly positive view of reality, being in the physical presence of people who like us and are like us makes us feel safe and secure,” he said.

“Kids can also take an active role in helping others to break the cycle that leads to poor self-image by being kind and supportive to their friends.”

How to cut down on social media

Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist based in California told Healthline, one step people can take is to become more aware of social media use.

“Learn to notice which apps trigger negative self-talk, feelings of sadness, or a sense of unworthiness. Also notice the apps that bring up feelings of positivity, satisfaction, and self-worth,” Manly said.

After a few days, you can take steps to decrease or completely stop using any apps that bring up negative thoughts or feelings.

 “Pay attention to your internal scripts. If you notice that you engage in negative self-talk, create positive internal dialogues that foster self-esteem,” Manly said. “For example, if you find yourself saying, ‘I can’t stand my appearance. I wish I had a perfect body,’ mindfully shift your self-talk to something like, ‘I am grateful for my body. I am working toward accepting, taking care of, and loving who I am.’  Our internal voices – be they positive or negative – have an enormous impact on our mental health.”

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