From movies to billboards to magazine covers — media has been pushing impossible beauty ideals for decades. But the recent rise of social media brings that exposure to new levels, particularly for young people.
“Youth spend, on average, between 6 and 8 hours per day on screens, much of it on social media,” says senior study author Gary S. Goldfield, PhD, senior scientist at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa, Canada. “Social media provides exposure to so many photo-edited pictures — including those of models, celebrities, and fitness instructors — that perpetuate an unattainable beauty standard that gets internalized by impressionable youth and young adults, leading to body dissatisfaction.”
Plenty of research has linked frequent social media use with body image issues and even eating disorders. But crucial gaps in our knowledge remain, Goldfield says.
Much of that research “is correlational,” Goldfield adds. And studies don’t always focus on individuals who may be more vulnerable to social media’s harmful effects, such as those with ruminative or brooding cognitive styles, affecting results.
And none have explored an obvious question: Can cutting down on social media use also diminish its potential harms?
Goldfield and his colleagues found an answer: Yes, it can.
Limiting social media use to 1 hour per day helped older teens and young adults feel much better about their weight and appearance after only 3 weeks, according to the study in Psychology of Popular Media, a journal of the American Psychological Association.
“Our randomized controlled design allowed us to show a stronger causal link between social media use and body image in youth, compared to previous research,” Goldfield says. “To our knowledge, this is the first study to show that social media use reduction leads to enhanced body image.”
Nancy Lee Zucker, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina and director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, says the results provide needed data that could help guide young people and parents on optimal social media use. Zucker was not involved in the study.
What the Researchers Did
For the study, Goldfield and colleagues recruited undergraduate psychology students aged 17-25 who averaged at least 2 hours per day of social media use on smartphones, and who had symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Participants were not told the purpose of the study, and their social media use was monitored by a screen time tracking program. At the beginning and end of the study, they answered questions such as “I’m pretty happy about the way I look,” and “I am satisfied with my weight,” on a 1 (never) to 5 (always) Likert scale.
During the first week, all 220 participants (76% female, 23% male, and 1% other) were told to use social media on their smartphones as they usually do. Over the next 3 weeks, 117 students were told to limit their social media use to 1 hour per day, while the rest were instructed to carry on as usual. In both groups, over 70% of participants were between age 17 and 19.
The first group cut their social media use by about 50%, from a mean of around 168 minutes per day during week 1 to around 78 minutes per day by the end of week 4, while the unrestricted group went from around 181 minutes per day to 189.
Cutting Use by Around Half Yielded Quick, Significant Improvements
The students who curbed their social media use saw significant improvements in their “appearance esteem” (from 2.95 to 3.15 points; P <.001) and their “weight esteem” (from 3.16 to 3.32 points; P < .001), whereas those who used social media freely saw no such changes (from 2.72 to 2.76; P = .992 and 3.01 to 3.02; P = .654, respectively). No gender differences between the groups were found.
The researchers are now studying possible reasons for these findings.
The changes in appearance scores “represent a small- to medium-effect size,” says child psychologist Sara R. Gould, PhD, director of the Eating Disorders Center at Children’s Mercy Kansas City in Missouri, who was not associated with the research. “As such, these are clinically meaningful results, particularly since they were achieved in only 3 weeks. Even small impacts can be added to other changes to create larger impacts or have the potential to grow over time.”
The Push to Limit Social Media
As more and more experts scrutinize the impact of social media on young people’s mental health, social media companies have responded with features designed to limit the time young users spend on their platforms.
Just this year, Instagram rolled out “quiet mode,” which lets users shut down their direct messages (DMs) for a specified amount of time. To turn on quiet mode, a user can navigate to their profile, select the triple line icon, “settings,” “notifications,” and “quiet mode.” Another option: Tap the triple line icon, “your activity,” and “time spent” to set reminders to take breaks after 10, 20, or 30 minutes of use.
TikTok users under 18 will soon have their accounts defaulted to a 1-hour daily screen-time limit, TikTok has announced. Unlike other similar features, it will require users to turn it off rather than turn it on.
Leveraging built-in controls is “a good start to being more intentional about your screen time,” suggests lead author Helen Thai, a PhD student in clinical psychology at McGill University in Montreal. “Unfortunately, users can easily bypass these settings.”
One reason for social’s magnetic pull: “FOMO — fear of missing out on what friends are doing — can make cutting back on social media use difficult,” says Zucker. To help prevent FOMO, parents may consider talking to parents of their children’s friends about reducing usage for all the children, Zucker suggests.
Mary E. Romano, MD, MPH, associate professor of pediatrics-adolescent medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, urges parents “to have very clear rules and expectations about social media use.”
Romano, also not involved in the study, recommends the website Wait Until 8th to help parents band together to commit to delaying smartphone access until at least eighth grade.
Gould recommends the Family Media Plan, a tool from the American Academy of Pediatrics that lets users create a customized plan, complete with guidance tailored to each person’s age and the family’s goals. Sample tips: Designate a basket for holding devices during meals, and switch to audiobooks or relaxing music instead of videos to fall asleep at night.
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