Does Facebook use impact on body image?
A recent study conducted by researchers at my own institution, the University of Strathclyde, has found that spending long periods of time looking at photos of friends on social media sites could lead to women becoming insecure about their body image. In general the reporting of this study was accurate but there were some misunderstandings about causality in the coverage, particularly within headlines. The media consistently reported the study findings within the context of ‘selfies’ even though the study was not focused on selfies at all.
What did the study do?
The research, lead by Petya Eckler from the University of Strathclyde, surveyed 881 university women in the US about their Facebook use, eating and exercise habits, and body image. They were able to predict how often women felt negatively about their own bodies after looking at someone else’s photos or posts, and how often women compared their own bodies to those of their friends. While time spent on Facebook had no relation to eating disorders, it did predict worse body image among participants. The findings also showed that more time spent on Facebook was associated with more negative feelings and more comparisons to the bodies of friends. They also found that for women who want to lose weight, more time on Facebook led to more attention being paid to physical appearance. This included attention to body shape and clothing.
How has the media handled this coverage?
Some of the media coverage interpreted a more direct causal link than anticipated by the researchers, reflected in particular in some of the headlines regarding the research findings. One headline was “Facebook leading women to eating disorders” which the author specifically stated she did not find in the study. Only the headline was alarmist though as the actual story behind the headline was accurate. We have spoken a number of times in Research the Headlines pieces about the importance of avoiding sensationalist headlines – it may just be the only part of the story the reader sees.
Some journalists were careful to note the researchers’ emphasis that the study was relational and reported an association, including the WebMD and The Guardian coverage, but others implied a causal link e.g., “Facebook making women feel bad” or “Facebook leads to poor body image”.
The media has also tended to discuss the research findings within the context of the topic of selfies. This surprised the author because the study was not about selfies – journalists have clearly taken this focus within the context of the current popularity of selfies in the press. In the opinion of the research author, several journalists did a good job of putting the study in a larger context namely WebMD and The Guardian. The focus on selfies in some of the coverage is a clear example of how research will be of interest to the media because the topic relates in some way to something topical in the news…..even if the research doesn’t directly look at that issue!