Exposure to TikTok videos depicting dancers with different body types can influence young women’s body satisfaction, according to new research published in Computers in Human Behavior. Specifically, videos featuring large dancers seem to have a positive impact on body satisfaction. On the other hand, videos featuring thin dancers appear to have a negative impact on body satisfaction.
These findings highlight the potential influence of social media content on individuals’ body image perceptions and self-esteem. They also underscore the importance of considering the psychological effects of different types of media content on vulnerable populations, such as young women who are often exposed to unrealistic beauty ideals.
Women often feel unhappy with their bodies, a phenomenon known as body dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction can have severe consequences, including contributing to eating disorders and mental health issues. Understanding what factors contribute to this body dissatisfaction is crucial.
Media, especially its portrayal of the “thin ideal,” where extremely slim bodies are considered attractive, has a significant impact on shaping these negative body perceptions. With the rise of social media platforms like TikTok, researchers are curious about how this new form of media might influence people’s body image.
“My interest in this topic started during COVID lockdown and the phenomenal increase in popularity of TikTok during that time, in particular the dance challenge videos which were very popular at the time and are still popular,” said study author Richard Joiner, a psychology professor at the University of Bath. “There was also concern about the increase in eating disorders in young females at the time and which continue to rise.”
In Study 1, the researchers recruited 262 women aged between 18 and 25 years for an online experiment. Over 80% of the participants in the study used TikTok daily, spending about 1 to 2 hours on the platform each day. The participants were randomly assigned to watch TikTok videos featuring thin dancers, large dancers, or videos of animals (the control condition). After watching the videos, participants rated their weight satisfaction, overall appearance satisfaction, and body shape satisfaction.
Body satisfaction significantly increased after watching videos featuring large dancers and control videos (videos unrelated to body appearance). However, after watching videos of thin dancers, body satisfaction showed a slight decrease.
“The first study was a student project and I wasn’t really expecting to find anything, so I was very surprised to find that the type of TikTok video had an effect of body satisfaction and that it was negative when watching TikTok dance challenge videos involving thin dancers and positive when watching dance challenge videos involving large dancers. The latter was particularly surprising because I had not seen this reported for other social media platforms,” Joiner told PsyPost.
Study 2 aimed to replicate the findings from Study 1 and delve deeper into the potential reasons behind these effects. Besides investigating the impact of video types on body satisfaction, this study looked into factors that might modify or explain this connection. These factors included thin-ideal internalization (how much someone personally adopts the societal ideal of being thin), trait appearance comparison (how often someone compares their looks with others), state appearance comparison (how much someone engages in appearance comparisons while watching videos), and direction of appearance comparison (how someone compares their own appearance with what’s seen in the videos).
In Study 2, the researchers recruited another sample of 280 women aged between 18 and 25 years. The participants watched TikTok videos as in Study 1. In addition, they also answered questions to measure the factors mentioned above.
Study 2 largely replicated the findings from Study 1. Watching videos featuring large dancers led to increased body satisfaction, while watching videos featuring thin dancers resulted in decreased body satisfaction.
The researchers also found that social comparison played a significant role. A majority of participants in the thin dancer condition engaged in upward comparison (comparing themselves negatively to the dancers), while a majority of participants in the large dancer condition engaged in downward comparison (comparing themselves positively to the dancers).
Study 3 aimed to address some limitations of the previous two studies and further explore the effects of watching TikTok dance challenge videos on body satisfaction. In Study 1 and Study 2, participants were informed of the study’s purpose, potentially influencing their responses. To address these limitations, Study 3 concealed the true purpose of the study from participants.
In Study 3, the researchers recruited 375 women aged between 18 and 25 years and randomly assigned them to watch either TikTok videos of thin dancers or TikTok videos of large dancers. Participants were told that the study aimed to investigate the engagement of TikTok videos. After watching the videos, the participants completed the same measures of body satisfaction used in the previous studies.
Even after concealing the true purpose of the study, the results consistently indicated that watching videos of thin dancers led to lower body satisfaction compared to videos of large dancers.
“The main take away from this study is that watching TikTok videos has an impact on body satisfaction and that it is generally negative because most of the dance challenge videos are off thin dancers,” Joiner told PsyPost.
But the study, like all research, includes some limitations.
“The main caveat is that this was a small-scale experimental study,” Joiner explained. “The participants spent about two minutes watching six videos and not their actual TikTok video stream. However, we found that the average time spent on TikTok was between 1 and hours a day, so potentially the impact of TikTok is even greater than we found, although that still has to be tested.”
“Plus we have conducted other studies and we have found the same effects with other types of videos (i.e., exercise videos). Plus there are some very concerning videos on TikTok, such as ‘what I eat in a day’ where people show how they eat less than the recommended calorie intake.”
The study highlights the increasing importance of investigating the impact of TikTok, as its usage had grown since the previous studies were conducted.
“I would like to add that this study shows that watching TikTok videos is not universally negative and that there are positive and negative effects,” Joiner said. “The findings also raise the possibility that TikTok could change its algorithm and show a wider variety of body types, and this could have a major public health benefits. Body dissatisfaction is major risk factor for eating disorders and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric diseases due to medical complications or suicide.”
The study, “The effect of different types of TikTok dance challenge videos on young women’s body satisfaction“, was authored by Richard Joiner, Emily Mizen, Bethany Pinnell, Laraib Siddique, Abigail Bradley, and Skye Trevalyen.