Women’s rights activists and psychologists have long argued that the way women are portrayed in the media has a strong — and often negative — effect on the way they view themselves.
Starting in the 1980s, research began to show that TV and print ads that depict unrealistically thin women contribute to poor body image (PDF), depression and low self-esteem among girls who look at them.
But in 2015, with adolescents spending more time than ever on social media sites, one new study suggests that Facebook could be having the same deleterious effect on girls' self-esteem as fashion magazines.
In a study published online Friday in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, researchers from University of New South Wales in Australia and the University of the West of England in Bristol, U.K. found that young women who spend a lot of time on Facebook were more likely to compare their looks to others and to "self-objectify" — meaning, as the study's authors put it, they "view themselves from an observer’s perspective and thus view their body as an object to be gazed upon."
They conducted an online survey of 150 female college students and staff at a U.K. university who were between the ages of 17 and 24, asking them how much time they spent using various types of media, including Facebook, fashion magazines, TV, music videos and the Internet.
Researchers asked the women a series of questions about how often they compare their appearances to those of others, using questions such as, “When I see good-looking people, I wonder how I compare to them.” They were also questioned about how often they compared their own looks to those of others on Facebook, including six specific groups: older photos of themselves, family members, close friends, friends of friends, Facebook-only friends and celebrities.
Finally, the women were asked to rate the importance of various physical attributes of themselves on a scale of 1 to 10.
The researchers found that the women who were heavy users of Facebook were “significantly” likely to self-objectify.
The degree to which heavy Facebook users focused on their own appearances and compared themselves to others was similar to those who spent a lot of time reading fashion magazines. Other types of media, like TV or general Internet browsing, do not correlate as highly with increased self-objectification.
"Our research shows that spending more time reading magazines and on Facebook is associated with greater self-objectification among young women and these relationships are influenced by women's tendency to compare their appearance to others, particularly to peers on Facebook," the authors wrote.
The women in the study spent an average of two hours a day on Facebook, the authors wrote. They pointed out that, with more than 250 billion images posted on Facebook, according to the social network’s own tally, with users uploading 350 million new photos each day, “Facebook may well be considered an appearance-focused media type.”
The authors theorize that fashion magazines and Facebook contain more images and advertisements related to women’s appearances than TV or general Internet use, which may cause the magazine and social media sites to have a greater impact.
Previous studies have shown that Facebook can cause depression among those who use it to compare themselves to others. While not much research has been done on how social networking sites affect body image, a 2014 study showed that more exposure to Facebook photo applications — though not Facebook use in general — was linked with more dissatisfaction with weight and a greater drive to be thin among middle and high school girls. Another 2014 study of more than a thousand adolescent girls found that the more time they spent on social networking websites, the more they “self-objectified.”
The authors of the current study say more research needs to be done, but that Facebook and social media sites need to be included in the conversation about girls' self-esteem.
“Intervention programs could focus on reducing any negative impact of appearance comparisons through different media types, including Facebook, to improve the well-being of young women,” they wrote.