From movies to billboards to magazine covers, the media has pushed impossible ideals of beauty for decades. But the recent rise of social media is taking that exposure to a new level, especially for young people.
“Adolescents spend an average of between 6 and 8 hours a day in front of screens, much of it on social media,” says lead study author Gary S. Goldfield, PhD, principal investigator at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa, Canada. “Social media provides access to so many photo-edited images — including those of models, celebrities and fitness trainers — that maintain an unattainable standard of beauty that is internalized by impressionable youth and young adults and leads to physical dissatisfaction.”
Much research has linked frequent use of social media to body image issues and even eating disorders. But critical gaps in our knowledge remain, says Goldfield.
Much of this research “is correlative,” adds Goldfield. And studies don’t always focus on people who may be more vulnerable to the harmful effects of social media, such as: B. Individuals with thoughtful or brooding cognitive styles that affect outcomes.
And none have addressed an obvious question: Can limiting social media use also reduce its potential harm?
Goldfield and his colleagues found an answer: Yes, it can.
According to the study in Psychology of Popular Media, a journal of the American Psychological Association, limiting social media use to 1 hour per day helped older teens and young adults feel much better about their weight and appearance after just 3 weeks.
“Our randomized controlled design allowed us to show a stronger causal association between social media use and body image in adolescence compared to previous research,” says Goldfield. “To our knowledge, this is the first study to show that reducing social media use leads to improved 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 the data needed to help young people and parents make the most of social media could help. Zucker was not involved in the study.
What the researchers did
For the study, Goldfield and colleagues recruited psychology students aged 17 to 25 who used social media on smartphones an average of at least 2 hours per day and 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 fairly happy with my appearance” and “I’m happy with my weight” on a Likert scale from 1 (never) to 5 (always). .
In the first week, all 220 participants (76% women, 23% men and 1% other) were told to use social media on their smartphones as usual. Over the next 3 weeks, 117 students were told to limit their social media use to 1 hour a day, while the rest were told to carry on as usual. In both groups, more than 70% of the participants were between 17 and 19 years old.
The first group reduced their social media use by about 50%, from an average of about 168 minutes per day at week 1 to about 78 minutes per day at the end of week 4, while the unrestricted group increased from about 181 minutes per day to 189.
Reducing consumption by about half resulted in rapid, significant improvements
The students who restricted their social media use saw significant improvements in their “Appearance Appreciation” (from 2.95 to 3.15 points; P<0.001) and “Weight Appreciation” (from 3.16 to 3.32 points; P < 0.001), while those who freely used social media saw no such changes (from 2.72 to 2.76; P = 0.992 and 3.01 to 3.02, respectively; P = 0.654). No gender differences were found between the groups.
The researchers are now investigating possible reasons for these results.
The changes in appearance scores “represent a small to moderate effect size,” says child psychologist Sara R. Gould, PhD, director of the Center for Eating Disorders at Children’s Mercy Kansas City in Missouri, who was not involved with the research. “As such, these are clinically meaningful results, given that they were achieved in just 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 experts study the impact of social media on young people’s mental health, social media companies have responded with features aimed at limiting the time young users spend on their platforms.
Just this year, Instagram introduced “silent mode,” which allows users to turn off their direct messages (DMs) for a set amount of time. To enable Silent Mode, a user can navigate to their profile, select the three-line icon, Settings, Notifications, and Quiet Mode. Another option: Tap the three-line icon, “Your Activity,” and “Time Spent” to set reminders to take breaks after 10, 20, or 30 minutes of use.
TikTok users under the age of 18 will soon be limiting their accounts to 1 hour of daily screen time by default, TikTok has announced. Unlike other similar features, users have to turn them off instead of turning them on.
Leveraging built-in controls is “a good start to becoming more conscious of your screen time,” suggests lead author Helen Thai, a graduate student in clinical psychology at McGill University in Montreal. “Unfortunately, users can easily bypass these settings.”
One reason for social’s magnetic appeal: “FOMO — the fear of missing out on what friends are doing — can make it difficult to limit social media use,” says Zucker. To prevent FOMO, parents might consider talking to the parents of their kids’ friends about reducing usage for all kids, Zucker suggests.
Mary E. Romano, MD, MPH, associate professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, urges parents to “have very clear rules and expectations for social media use.”
Romano, also not involved in the study, recommends the website Wait Until 8th to help parents unite to defer smartphone access until at least eighth grade.
Gould recommends the Family Media Plan, a tool from the American Academy of Pediatrics that allows users to create a customized plan, complete with guidance tailored to each person’s age and family goals. Sample Tips: Set a basket to hold gadgets during mealtimes, and switch to audiobooks or relaxing music instead of videos to help you fall asleep at night.
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