If you’ve ever been on Instagram only to realize that your mood was plummeting the longer you scrolled, you’re far from alone.
After looking at picture upon picture of fashionable celebrities, influencers and friends — often photographed in perfect lighting and presented through flattering filters — it’s all too easy to feel unattractive and “less than” in comparison.
Why does social media have such power to make you feel bad about your body? And what — if anything — can you do about it?
Mayo Clinic psychologist Craig Sawchuk, Ph.D., L.P., and Mayo Clinic psychology fellow Anne Roche, Ph.D., offer their expertise to help explain the effect of social media on mental health.
How social media affects body image
Here’s the deal: When you’re scrolling and looking at other people’s bodies, you’re usually judging them — sometimes at a more automatic level, so you may not even realize you’re doing it.
“It’s a fundamental feature of being human: We’re judgmental by nature. It’s just part of having frontal lobes; we think about these things,” says Dr. Sawchuk.
This isn’t necessarily bad. You may be judging them positively. But when you’re constantly scrutinizing other people’s appearance, this can become a habit — that you then apply to yourself.
“This can lead to thinking about a body as a thing to be viewed and evaluated, as opposed to thinking about other things that a body allows us to do,” says Dr. Roche.
And when we make comparisons to others on social media, we’re often comparing ourselves to someone we perceive to be better than or more ideal than ourselves, Dr. Sawchuk says.
“Social media has the potential to promote appearance ideals, like what we sometimes call ‘the thin ideal,’ ” adds Dr. Roche. “These culture- and media-promoted ideas suggest that being thin is equivalent to being attractive.”
If you internalize these ideals, you might be more dissatisfied, self-conscious or even anxious about your body, she says.
Research backs this up: A review article that looked at 45 studies found that social media images of “appearance ideals” made people feel worse about their own bodies.
“The unique part about this particular article is they started to get at the angle of causality. Ordinarily, a lot of psychological research is correlation,” Dr. Sawchuk says. “It showed that social media can have an impact on body image — in a negative direction.”
How is social media different from other media?
Insecurity about your body based on what you see in the media is nothing new. More-traditional media such as television, magazines and billboards have been promoting “the ideal body” for decades. But social media is particularly powerful for a few reasons:
- It’s interactive. On social media, you can like and comment on other people’s posts, and await others’ likes and comments on your own. “As human beings, we evaluate, and we also like to be evaluated positively. So that monitoring of ‘Did I get a like? Who did the like come from?’ may give us a little ping in the brain,” says Dr. Roche.
- It’s designed to keep you scrolling. Social media’s aim is to keep your attention, with algorithms in place to encourage this. In contrast, you don’t suddenly look up from a billboard and realize 30 minutes of your life have slipped by.
- It’s multisensory. “From a brain processing perspective, all these different sensory elements are coming at you from different angles from social media: the things that you’re hearing and seeing and reading. Just think of all these different areas of the brain literally lighting up and getting drawn into this,” says Dr. Sawchuk.
- It’s constantly available. If you carry your phone with you, you have access to social media 24/7. “We don’t have to go too terribly far to have it readily available to us,” Dr. Sawchuk says. “This is just part of our culture; it’s built into our habits.”
How is social media affecting mental health?
Here’s a litmus test: When you’re using social media, pay attention to your feelings and ask yourself, Do I feel better or worse? If it’s making you feel worse, put your phone down.
However, Dr. Sawchuk and Dr. Roche know it’s not always that simple. One problem with social media is that it may make you feel bad 4 out of 5 times — but great on the fifth time.
“It’s kind of like a slot machine,” says Dr. Sawchuk. “When it’s a good experience every so often, or we occasionally get a really good compliment, that keeps us hooked.”
- Is my head filled with thoughts about my body?
- Am I hearing regular negative self-talk?
- Am I engaging less in other enjoyable activities that are important to me?
- Is social media taking away from my relationships, work or sleep?
Is it possible to use social media in a healthy way?
Dr. Roche and Dr. Sawchuk say it’s possible to modulate your social media use to protect your wellness and body image. Try to:
- Set up speed bumps. Social media wants you to stay logged on forever, so set up ways to interrupt the endless scroll. Go old-school, Dr. Sawchuk says, and put a note or colored tape on your phone, tablet or computer. “Just having a visual awareness of some weird, funky color, something that kind of pops out and doesn’t mean anything to anybody else,” he says. Use that as a visual speed bump. Every time you see it, check in and ask yourself, What time is it? How do I feel?
- Take stock of who you’re following. Many influencer accounts are focused on appearance, says Dr. Roche. “Think about what types of accounts you can follow that are more neutral when it comes to body and that help you engage with other interests that are less likely to be body focused,” she says. Some examples of body-neutral accounts are those focused on architecture, crafting, nature or comedy.
Overall, aim for moderation in your social media use. You may have more luck scaling back than cutting out social media entirely.
“I think for the vast, vast majority of folks, the healthiest pathway is toward moderation,” says Dr. Sawchuk. “It’s actually OK to have dessert; a little bit can be good. The question is, at what point does it become too much? It’s just finding that self-regulation.”
Using social media in moderation
Moderation is a great philosophy, but it can be tough to implement. Maybe you’ve already realized that social media is harming your body image and tried to cut back — only to find yourself logging back in.
Don’t beat yourself up when you realize you’ve gotten sucked back in, says Dr. Roche. Have compassion for yourself. After all, the whole system is set up to keep you online. Is it surprising that it worked?
Dr. Sawchuk agrees. Social media companies want to keep you hooked, and so do many people using the platforms, he says.
“Influencers are trying to influence. They’re trying to attract more and more people to them,” he says. “So rather than taking our phones and whacking ourselves with them — like ‘What the heck am I doing?’ — it’s just realizing that these are the rules of the game. And then getting back to how you can balance it out.’ “
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