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Instagram and Disordered Eating

The Impact Creating Social Comparison

Social media has become a driving factor in today’s society. It can create and maintain business and social relationships. Of the many social media platforms, Instagram has become a major resource for those using it to follow and share photos for friends and family. It has even become a platform for people to launch their careers, such as bloggers or influencers. Since its launch in 2010, it has attracted more than one billion active users, 71% of which are under the age of 35 (Instagram, 2018).  While social media and particularly Instagram have many positive aspects, it also has some dangerous pitfalls—particularly for the easily-influenced adolescent and young women (Young Health Movement, 2017).

The content seen on Instagram can impact young people’s view of themselves, and consequently, the behaviours that these views generate.  Social Comparison Theory (Festinger, 1954), states that humans have a drive to measure their worth by comparing themselves to others. Instagram feeds this theory. Lewallen & Behm-Morawitz (2016) developed this further, introducing the term “upward social comparison”, a notion that people solely compare themselves to those they believe are somehow ‘better’, leaving the individual feeling less adequate (Lewallen & Behm-Morawitz, 2016).

Social Media’s Role on General Mental Health

Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam (2019) wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal about a study they conducted exploring social media’s role in the dramatic increase of anxiety and depression within adolescents.  Over 18 months, Pipher and Pipher Gilliam (2019) conducted interviews and focus groups with American girls between the ages of 12-19 years old, from primarily middle-class, Midwestern families.  The study yielded high correlations between extensive social media use and depression/anxiety.

Results found that while girls seem to be closer with their families than previous generations, they are becoming increasingly more socially isolated (Pipher & Pipher Gilliam, 2019). The study also pointed out teens now spend six to nine hours a day online reviewing posts and scrolling through images, generating minimal sense of independence or accomplishment in other tasks. Furthermore, previous research from the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Futureproject that shows since 2007—the dawn of the smartphone era—girls have dramatically decreased the amount of time they spend engaging in prosocial behaviour (i.e., shopping, seeing friends, or going to movies). Instead, many girls spend their Saturday nights home alone, watching Netflix, and surfing social media (Pipher & Pipher Gilliam, 2019).  In the event teenage girls do leave home for an extended period of time, (i.e., university), 62% of first-year students said they had experienced overwhelming anxiety or panic attacks in 2016, compared to 33% in 2011 (Pipher & Pipher Gilliam, 2019). This shows the dependency adolescents have with social media.

In sum, younger teenagers are experiencing mental health difficulties as a result of isolation, often due to very high smartphone use. In a 2018 national health survey by Cigna, girls reported the highest levels of loneliness on record. Many of the girls interviewed articulated many of social media’s drawbacks, despite declaring they can’t live without it. “After an evening online, I go to bed feeling unhappy,” one 13-year old continued. “I wonder, ‘What did I do all day long?’ Then I wake up and do the same things the next day,” (Pipher & Pipher Gilliam, 2019).  A 14-year old quoted in the study noted, “When my friends are depressed, I’m the one they call.  It’s terrifying.  I’ve put suicide-prevention apps on so many people’s phones,” (Pipher & Pipher Gilliam, 2019).

Fortunately, this phenomenon is gaining attention in mental health circles.  The American Association of Pediatrics now categorically warns that excessive social media use can lead to depression and anxiety.  As girls curate more “interesting”, supposedly happier virtual personas for themselves, their real selves diminish. It is possible girls collect ‘likes’ instead of making friends. They can be shattered by a cruel text or an indifferent reaction to a selfie.  The researchers concluded in a sense, modern teenage girls are never truly alone and never truly with others.

Sheldon and Newman (2019) examined the motives behind Instagram use and its relationship to excessive reassurance seeking and interpersonal rejection in a sample of American teenagers.  Sheldon and Newman (2019) based their study on The Uses and Gratifications Theory (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974), which states individuals seek information that will satisfy their individual needs.  Sheldon et al. (2017) updated Uses and Gratifications theory, identifying five factors that apply to gratification and Instagram use: social interaction, documentation, diversion, self-promotion, and creativity (Sheldon & Newman 2019; Sheldon et al., 2017).  Excessive Reassurance-Seeking (ERS) has been known to contribute to depressive symptoms, as well as being a factor in interpersonal rejection and interpersonal dependency (McClintock, McCarrick, & Anderson 2014; Sheldon et al., 2017).  ERS can make adolescents particularly vulnerable, as peer support becomes a priority during adolescence.  Results from Sheldon and Newman (2019) suggested that ERS in teens positively predicts their usage of Instagram for self-promotion reasons.  Effectively, there are teens driven to continuously post to Instagram in seeking others to validate and like their photos.  Sheldon and Newman (2019) also found that teens who seek excessive reassurance on Instagram and who engage in constant postings – quite logically – log more hours on the app. A teen seeking reassurance will spend more time on the app to see how their posts are being validated, but more time on the app often leads to greater insecurity, not necessarily greater validation.

Social Media’s Role on Self Esteem

Given current preoccupations with social media, ‘likes’ and comments are considered validation, as users seek to feel attractive enough, healthy enough, and as close to perfect as possible.  Sherman et al. (2016) further investigated the power of a ‘like’, specifically in adolescents.  Their study considered the neurological developments that have resulted from giving ‘likes’ this kind of extraordinary power.  They found that the reward, attention, and social cognition areas of their brains show more activity with pictures that have many ‘likes’ than with pictures that with fewer ‘likes’ (Sherman et al., 2016).  This study suggests that ‘likes’ are now recognized by our brains as validation; hence, individuals attribute greater value to their online presence now that brain cognitions are changing to reflect this new form of outward validation.

Brown and Tiggemann (2016) found in their study that women who saw attractive pictures of celebrities and peers on Instagram were more likely to be depressed about their body image than those not exposed to similar pictures.  Brown and Tiggemann’s (2016) study included 138 women, separated into three groups.  The first experimental group looked at celebrities’ pages and the second experimental group looked at their friends’ public pages, while the control group looked at travel photos (Brown and Tiggemann, 2016).  Results found that participants in the experimental groups registered significantly higher levels of negative moods and body dissatisfaction than in the control group.  Experimental group participants recorded that while their general mood and body dissatisfaction was an existing issue, it became more significant when they idolized the celebrity, or when the participant thought the peer was more attractive than themselves (Brown & Tiggemann, 2016).   In other words, the results were mediated by the ‘state-appearance’ comparison.  The state-appearance comparison occurs when an individual decides another person’s attractiveness by comparing that person to themselves (Brown & Tiggemann, 2016).

Comparison of oneself to others is quite common but the study found that depending on the frequency of its occurrence, such comparisons had an inevitable impact on self-confidence, body satisfaction, and self-esteem. Brown and Tiggemann’s (2016) study demonstrated that being constantly exposed to “attractive” photos on Instagram can directly influence young women’s self-image, body satisfaction, and overall self-confidence. Given the ever-growing numbers of young people involved in social media, where exposure to photos is constant, these results create a compelling argument to examine these concerning correlations more closely.

A dangerous aspect of Instagram that has not yet been included in these studies is Instagram’s algorithmic practice of targeted advertisements. An individual looking through an attractive celebrity’s account will soon find Instagram suggesting other celebrity pages, which as proved by the Brown and Tiggemann’s (2016) study, will only enhance those negative self-images on the part of the viewer.  This cycle of self-comparison and quite possibly, self-loathing, is arguably perpetuated by Instagram, and possibly contributing to destructive behaviour, eating habits, and negative self-image.

A term that is widely used on Instagram is ‘fitspiration’ (Tiggemann & Zaccardo, 2015).  The term is used to inspire being ‘fit’ through healthy eating and exercise, but it could also cause serious guilt in those who are struggling to ‘eat clean’ and exercise regularly.  In 2015, Tiggemann and Zaccardo conducted a study to see how ‘fitspiration’ accounts affect women’s body image.  A group of 130 participants were randomly assigned to view either a series of fitspo pictures (experimental group), or travel pictures (control group).  The results concluded that those who looked at the fitspiration photos generated a higher rate of body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem to the control group participants.  The results of Tiggemann and Zaccardo (2015) demonstrate an aspect of ‘fitspiration’ that most elect not to acknowledge:  these accounts – be they under the guise of fitness or inspiration to be thin – can hurt others as much as they can help.  To this point, the women in Tiggemann and Zaccardo’s (2015) study who view ‘fitspo’ accounts often said that they feel ‘less than’ because they do not look like the account holder, promoting her particular brand of healthy lifestyle.

Similar to the results from the study by Tiggemann and Brown (2016), the feelings of high body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem registered by participants in the Tiggemann and Zaccardo’s (2015) study were also mediated by the state appearance comparison.  In other words, if participants viewing the ‘fitspiration’ photos found themselves to be as or more attractive than the ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’ account holder, their rate of body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem wasn’t as significant.  Tiggemann and Zaccardo (2015) showed how ‘fitspiration’ can severely damage women’s body image and self-esteem as a result of being exposed to photos of others deemed ‘better’ because they’re portraying the picture of ‘health’.  In reality, the ‘fitspo’ world on Instagram is plagued by the same image manipulation phenomenon that is present elsewhere on the platform.

‘Fitspiration’ has a massive following on Instagram and holds the potential to influence millions of young women, positively and negatively.  A study done by Slater, Varsani, and Diedrichs (2017) examined the impact of fitspiration photos and self-compassion quotes had on young women.  The 160 women who participated were randomly assigned to four groups: one of solely fitspiration photos, one consisting of solely self-compassion posts, one of both fitspiration and self-compassion posts, and one control group of appearance neutral photos (Slater, Varsani,, & Diedrichs, 2017).   Results indicated women are negatively impacted by solely fitspiration photos, with low levels of self-compassion.  In the combination group, the self-compassion photos gave women an overall positive outlook on themselves, in vastly greater numbers than those participants who viewed only ‘fitspiration’ photos (Slater, Varsani, & Diedrichs, 2017). Furthermore, among the group comprised of viewing solely self-compassion quotes, women indicated a greater body satisfaction, self-compassion, and reduced negative mood as compared to those who viewed the neutral photos.  These results from Slater, Varsani, and Diedrichs (2017) indicate possible benefits to this new method in combating the negatives of social media.  When women are exposed to more self-compassionate images and posts, they are more inclined to engage in positive behaviours for themselves and their bodies.

Kleemans, Daalmans, Carbaat, and Anschütz (2018) examined the direct effect manipulated images has on adolescent girls’ body image.  Their study was also based upon social comparison theory, similar to this current study.  A between-subjects design was conducted with 144 girls between the ages of 14 to 18 years old.  The girls were randomly shown either original or manipulated (retouched or reshaped) Instagram selfies. Results suggested that the manipulated photos yielded low body-image among the sample of adolescent girls, especially among girls with high social comparison tendencies.  Many of the girls could point out a photo that had been retouched with a filter but they had trouble identifying a photo that had been reshaped, noting that both the original and reshaped photos look ‘natural’.

The results of this study are significant in demonstrating the ease with which images can be manipulated on platforms such as Instagram – and how influential those images can be.  These manipulated images could lead those with low self-esteem to try to shape their body to fit one seen on Instagram, one that actually may be completely fake. Unfortunately, while the manipulated photos were not accurate depictions of the photo in question, they were reported more positively than the untouched photos, suggesting that often young girls are trying to attain a body that is unrealistic.  Worse, even when aware that the photo might be unrealistic these girls still strived for that manipulated ‘perfect body’.  It could be argued that the masses of manipulated photos seen on Instagram are essentially setting these young girls up for failure.

Social Media’s Role on Disordered Eating

In September 2016, Sidani et al. (2016) conducted a study of 1,765 women between the ages 19 through 32, examining the association between general social media presence and disordered eating.  Participants were assessed via the Sick, Control, One, Fat, Food (SCOFF) questionnaire and the Eating Disorder Screen for Primary Care.  Their social media use (including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Reddit) was assessed according to time per day participants spent using social media and the frequency of visits per week.  Results yielded that the more spent time on social media, the significantly higher are the chances of developing disordered eating habits. It was found that participants with the highest incidence of social media use also reported significantly greater eating concerns (Sidani et al., 2016).  Additionally, Sidani et al. (2016) found significant positive overall linear associations between the social media use variables and disordered eating. Participants were recruited through a national probability-based online non-volunteer panel, meaning this group was sufficiently broad enough that generalisations can be made from these results.

As of March 2015, the ‘fitspiration’ hashtag related to over 5.2 million pictures (Holland & Tiggemann, 2016).  These pictures are reaching masses of young women, some of whom are made increasingly insecure as seeing those photos confirm their fears that they won’t ever live up to a given standard of beauty (Holland & Tiggemann, 2016). The aim of a study by Holland and Tiggemann (2016) was to investigate if the individuals posting on ‘fitspo’ sites were doing so to mask their disordered eating and compulsion for exercise.  The results from Holland and Tiggemann’s (2016) study showed that individuals who run ‘fitspiration’ accounts in fact often have issues with disordered eating, as compulsive exercise often correlates strongly with patterns of restricting food, purging, and other unhealthy food behaviours (Holland & Tiggemann, 2016).  Their results come from not only the data collected during the study between control and experiment group, but also analyses of ‘fitspiration’ content showing a significant presence of guilt-inducing language regarding food choices and weight goals. Along with the messaging, ‘fitspiration’ accounts seem to exemplify one body type: the lean and toned body, emphasising ‘healthy’ lifestyles on appearance only, a result that is not necessarily correlated to genuine health goals.  Given the number of seemingly ‘healthy’ accounts, young and impressionable girls could fill their day jumping from one ‘healthy’ account to another, all the while feeling less and less confident about their body.   The data indicate that a significant number of the ‘fitspo’ account holders are themselves struggling with unhealthy relationships with food and their bodies, while promoting a distorted image of what being healthy looks like.

A further development among eating disorders has emerged called orthorexia.  While it is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5), it is widely recognized by health professionals as an unhealthy obsession with “clean” eating, and often results in cutting out food groups, much like anorexia patients are inclined to do  (Turner & Lefevre, 2017).  Turner and Lefevre (2017) studied the correlation between Instagram and the incidence of orthorexia, and found a link between the two.  Starting with the premise that significant Instagram use has been shown to have negative effects on individuals disordered eating, social comparison and body image, Turner and Lefevre  (2017) focused specifically on the impact that high Instagram use has on orthorexia.  They concluded that, similar to other negative effects resulting from heavy Instagram use previously mentioned, high usage on the platform is associated with a higher tendency towards orthorexia nervosa (Turner & Lefevre, 2017).

Although attaining the ‘perfect body’ is obviously impossible, Instagram users will attempt to portray that ideal – especially when given the option of doctoring images.  A relevant study done by McClean et al. (2015) found that among adolescent girls who were avid social media users, a significant number engaged in photo manipulation to make their bodies look closer to the ‘ideal’ body.  The girls valued their appearance so much that they needed to appear as perfect as the unrealistic others they see on the same platform.

This study’s results reinforced how Instagram can negatively affect young women’s perception of themselves. This study was comprised of 151 participants, all females between ages 18-25 years old that have an Instagram account. 49.01% of participants reported they feel dissatisfied with themselves after spending time on Instagram, 61.59% alter/enhance their photos before they post to Instagram and if they didn’t see the desired number of likes on a post, 72.00% would delete the post entirely.  Instagram’s ‘Discover’ page directs users to accounts they follow, based on accounts they already follow.  Results showed that 50.33% of the participants use the discover page for new workouts, 74.84% use the discover page for new diets, 72.19% change their eating habits based on      what they see on Instagram.  These are all majority percentages, showing how detrimental and concerning Instagram can be to impressionable young women, especially when focused on a specific issue such as diets, exercise and appearance.

Strides in the Instagram Community

In response to the multitude of troubling trends noted above, initiatives have been taken that offer promise to those trapped in these behaviours.  Among the Instagram community are efforts referred to as ‘voicing self-love’ campaigns, specifically designed for women.  With more discussion and growing support for body positivity, the public discourse as well as the online world may be beginning to repair previous and ongoing damage that is being done to women’s self-esteem and body-image.  These positive efforts may eventually diminish the destructive behaviours that accompany attempts to attain the near-impossible beauty standard.  Aerie, a branch of American Eagle clothing company, started the #AerieReal campaign, which emphasises inclusivity of multiple body types in their advertisements, with the stated intention of dismantling the notion of ‘the perfect body’.  The goal is to bring awareness to a broad audience that there are many body types to be celebrated, and that everybody should be considered ‘acceptable’ and ‘beautiful’.  The #AerieReal campaign also pledged that during this campaign they wouldn’t photoshop any of the models photographed, no small gesture at the time the campaign was launched in 2014 (Weimer, 2017).

While the feminist world doesn’t see the #AerieReal campaign as entirely positive, arguing that it still sexualises women regardless of their body shape, this campaign is no doubt an important step in correcting the crushing wave of images that most of us could never attain. This campaign has started a trend among other companies to use models of varying sizes so that more women see themselves in the advertising and do not feel ashamed of their body.  Similarly, on Instagram there has been an increase of celebrities and influencers who are being vocal about changing beauty standards and encouraging others to be body positive, regardless of their weight (Cwynar-Horta, 2016).  This new wave of body positivity and no-diet culture is an important start in mediating the serious harm Instagram has inflicted on young, impressionable women.

To date, little academic research has been done on body-positivity or body-neutrality Instagram pages and celebrities, as well as its effect on young women. A simple search for such pages yields several articles recently written about the “best body positivity pages to follow”.  This in an encouraging indication that a trend may be taking hold that will begin to provide an antidote to Instagram users distraught with what they encounter daily – perhaps multiple times a day – on the app.

Hadley graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London with an M.S. in Clinical Psychology in 2019. This article is part of her dissertation. Hadley is passionate about mental health, and the psychological dangers social media poses to adolescents and young people.

Cite This Article

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