Numerous studies have examined the relation between body esteem and feelings of self-worth, and exposure to idealized images on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. The exact mechanisms by which social media use impacts these characteristics, however, is still not well understood. In addition, most studies have been restricted to a single cultural context.
Researchers from Korea conducted a cross-cultural study, including three European and one Asian country, examining how others’ approval has an impact on self-worth. The study’s aim was to understand how this contingency varies across cultures and to provide practical tools for intervention programs. Their results are published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Different theoretical constructs and empirical evidence suggest that self-worth is based on a variety of factors, including academic competence, family support, and others’ approval. It is this latter domain which interested the team of researchers.
The authors justify this choice based on two reasons. First, it may underlie other contingencies, like appearance, as comparison to (and by) others is fundamental to these. Second, it’s likely to be culturally sensitive, as the tendency to perform social comparisons is known to vary with higher collectivistic (predominantly Asian) vs. individualistic (predominantly European) social tendencies.
The authors used data from a large-scale, cross-national survey, with a total of 981 participants from Austria (20%), Belgium (30%), Spain (31%) and South Korea (19%). Self-worth contingency on others’ approval was measured via questionnaire (e.g., “I don’t care what other people think of me.”), as were tendencies to engage in appearance comparison on Facebook (e.g., “When using Facebook, I sometimes compare my figure to the figures of other people.”). Body esteem was also measured by a seven-point questionnaire (e.g., “I like what I see when I look in the mirror.”)
The results of the study provide insight into how social media consumption impacts body esteem. First, and in line with the researchers’ hypothesis, greater contingency on others’ approval predicted lower body esteem for all four countries. Additionally, the authors were able to conclude that the relationship between engaging in appearance comparisons on social media and low body esteem is mediated by the degree to which others’ approval is important for one’s self-esteem.
Second, and perhaps more interestingly, only European girls were more likely to engage in appearance comparisons when their self-worth was more contingent on others’ approval. Likewise, only European girls demonstrated a significant relationship between engaging in appearance comparisons and generally lower self-esteem.
Contrarily, Korean girls were no more likely to engage in appearance comparison because of low self-esteem or greater need for others’ approval. This allowed the authors to confirm the importance of cultural contexts, as there were clear differences between European and Korean girls.
Self- and body esteem relates in important ways to overall mental health, wellness and enjoyment of life. It is also heavily influenced by media, and especially social media, where comparisons may be seen as more realistic despite the fact that most photos are idealized and heavily edited. Understanding the precise psychological pathways that relate these elements is key to developing useful interventions, especially for girls and young women.
The study, “The Relationships among Self-Worth Contingency on Others’ Approval, Appearance Comparisons on Facebook, and Adolescent Girls’ Body Esteem: A Cross-Cultural Study“, was authored by Michael Prieler, Jounghwa Choi, and Hye Eun Lee.