In a new article published in the journal Body Image, a team of psychology researchers outline a mountain of evidence linking social media use to body image issues. The researchers describe how algorithms may be intensifying this link and urge social media corporations to take action.
Appearance-based social media platforms like TikTok appear to be particularly harmful to users’ body image. On these platforms, teenagers are continually exposed to filtered and edited content that presents unrealistic body standards. According to recent evidence, this distorted environment increases users’ risk of body dissatisfaction and harmful conditions like body dysmorphia and eating disorders.
“I am interested in risk and protective factors of body image, and some of my more recent research has focused on the role of social media,” explained lead author Jennifer A. Harriger, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. “I became interested in the use of algorithms by social media companies, and the revelations by whistleblowers demonstrating that companies were aware of the harm that their platforms were causing young users. This article was written as a call to arms for social media companies, researchers, influences, parents, educators, and clinicians. We need to do a better job protecting our youth.”
In their report, Harriger and her team explain that these effects may be exacerbated by social media algorithms that personalize the content shown to users. These algorithms “rabbit hole” users into content that is more extreme, less monitored, and made to keep them on the platform.
Importantly, the harm caused by these algorithms is not unknown to social media companies, as evidenced by recent whistleblower testimonies. Former Facebook executive Frances Haugen leaked documents revealing that the social media giant was aware of research linking its products to mental health and body image issues among teenagers. A TikTok whistleblower later leaked evidence of an algorithm that carefully manipulates the content shown to users, prioritizing emotionally triggering content in order to maintain their engagement.
“Social media platforms can be valuable opportunities to connect with others, and users have the ability to customize their own experiences (choosing which content to follow or interact with); but social media platforms also have drawbacks. One such drawback is the company’s use of algorithms that are designed to keep the user engaged for longer periods of time,” Harriger told PsyPost.
“Social media companies are aware of the harm caused by their platforms and their use of algorithms but have not made efforts to protect users. Until these companies become more transparent about the use of their algorithms and provide opportunities for users to opt out of content they do not wish to view, users are at risk. One way to minimize risk is to only follow accounts that are positive influences on mental and physical health and to block content that is triggering or negative.”
In their article Harriger and colleagues outline recommendations for combatting these algorithms and protecting the mental health of social media users. First, they emphasize that the main responsibility lies with the social media companies themselves. The authors reiterate suggestions from the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED), stating that social media companies should increase the transparency of their algorithms, take steps to remove accounts sharing eating disordered content, and make their research data more accessible to the public.
The researchers add that social media platforms should disclose to users why the content they see in their feeds was chosen. They should also limit microtargeting, a marketing strategy that targets specific users based on their personal data. Further, these corporations are socially responsible for the well-being of their users and should take steps to increase awareness of weight stigma. This can be done by consulting body image and eating disorder experts on ways to encourage a positive body image among users, perhaps through the promotion of body positive content on the platform.
Next, influencers can also play a role in impacting their followers’ body image and well-being. Harriger and her colleagues suggest that influencers should also consult body image experts for guidelines on body positive messaging. Positive actions might include informing their audience about social media algorithms and encouraging them to fight the negative effects of algorithms by following and engaging with body positive content.
Researchers, educators, and clinicians can examine ways to prevent the negative impact of social media on body image. “It is difficult to empirically research the effect of algorithms, because every user’s experience is personally tailored towards their interests (e.g., what they’ve clicked on or viewed in the past),” Harriger noted. “Research can, however, examine the use of media literacy programs that address the role of algorithms and equip young users with tools to protect their well-being while on social media.”
Such research can help inform social media literacy programs that teach adolescents about advertising on social media, encourage them to use critical thinking when participating in social media, and teach them strategies to increase the positive content shown in their feeds.
Parents can teach their children positive social media habits by modeling healthy behavior with their own electronic devices and by establishing rules and limits around their children’s social media use. They can also host discussions with their children on issues like image editing on social media and algorithms.
Overall, the researchers conclude that social media corporations have an ultimate responsibility to protect the well-being of their users. “We reinforce that system-level change needs to occur so that individual users can effectively do their part in preserving their own body image and well-being,” the researchers report. “Social media corporations need to be transparent about how content is delivered if algorithms continue to be used, and they need to provide users with clear ways to easily opt out of content that they do not wish to see.”
The study, “The dangers of the rabbit hole: Reflections on social media as a portal into a distorted world of edited bodies and eating disorder risk and the role of algorithms”, was authored by Jennifer A. Harriger, Joshua A. Evans, J. Kevin Thompson, and Tracy L. Tylka.