The great social media and mental health debate continues, thanks to a recent study that looked at young women’s use of Facebook and their risk for risky dieting. Turns out, it may have less to do with how much time one spends online, and more to do with how a woman uses social media.
After surveying 128 college-aged women, the researchers, writing in the August issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that highly active Facebook users were more likely to engage in unhealthy weight-loss behaviors—like binging and purging or using weight-loss pills— but only if they used Facebook to compare themselves to others.
As long as women were not using Facebook for comparisons, being more emotionally invested in the site was actually associated with less concern about body image and fewer risky dieting behaviors.
“It’s sort of this double-edged sword,” lead study author Stephanie Zerwas, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, explained to Health. “If you’re using [Facebook] as a measuring stick to compare your body to everyone else’s bodies online, that’s really risky and also associated with a lot of disordered eating. But if you’re only using it to build a social network with the people around you, that can actually be productive by decreasing loneliness and creating relationships.”
Confusing things, however, is the fact that you may not pick up on how your own habits of scrutinizing photos of yourself and your pals are harmful, Zerwas says.
“Girls in the study described feeling appearance-related concerns after being tagged in other peoples’ photos and they didn’t always feel like they wanted certain pictures out there,” she says. “They admitted to untagging themselves or asking a friend to take a picture down, or instead commenting with things like, ‘I look so fat in that picture.’”
So how exactly do you know if your web habits could be costing you confidence? Zerwas recommends giving yourself a reality check with the following questions.
Am I posting this photo to share or compare?
Showing off a well-lit, nicely angled bikini photo in the hopes of collecting positive comments may come with different expectations than, say, posting a moment from your little sister’s graduation, she says.
“Really think carefully about what sorts of pictures you’re posting online,” Zerwas adds. “Are you just posting selfies or are you sharing special moments in your life? Those things can be very different.”
What motivates me to like someone else’s picture?
“One of the things that I encourage students to do is to really consider why they like a photograph. Do you like a photo because your friend looks skinny in it? Or, do you like it just because it’s an expression of affection for your friend?” Zerwas says. “Understanding your own behavior may help put into perspective and interpret the online behavior of others.”
Do I walk away from Facebook feeling sad, anxious, or jealous?
“It can be easy to get sort of sucked into that feeling of, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all these other people who have perfect lives and look great all of the time,’” she says. “I think sometimes people forget that’s just a carefully curated part of someone’s life—and anyone can pick and choose to share in that way.”
What to do with your answers
If you notice your habits are leading to way too much negativity, try a digital detox.
“I think that’s one strategy if you find that you really can’t restructure how you’re thinking about or engaging with social media,” Zerwas says. “It’s okay to stop and walk away from it.”
And if you’re worried about someone close to you, talk to them. Zerwas’ advice: “You can ask if there is anything going on that is making them fixate on comparisons and body image. Getting to the emotional issues that are under the surface of asking for reassurance can help short-circuit that negative talk.”
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