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Research Communications

Increased time on Facebook may lead to negative body image, new study finds 

By Natalia Radic / April 17, 2014

A study examining the effects of social media use found that increased time spent on Facebook correlated with negative body image in college women.

Co-authored by Ohio University Associate Professor of Journalism Yusuf Kalyango, the study surveyed 881 college women in the Midwest on their Facebook use, body image and eating and exercise habits. The study, conducted using online surveys, is the first to associate time spent on Facebook with poor body image, although previous studies have found similar links between body image and social media sites.
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The study has received international media coverage this week in more than 20 countries in at least 138 news outlets, including Yahoo News, BBC World News, NBC News and Today, WebMD, the Huffington Post and Glamour magazine.

The research examined how often the participants would compare their own bodies and eating habits—drawing from the Eating Attitudes Test (EAT) and Body Shape Questionnaire (BSQ) standardized scores—to those of their friends through posts and photos. The authors explain that negative body comparison facilitated by use of Facebook leads to a phenomenon known as mass mediated objectification.

"There is a way media tend to present people, and people—especially young women— tend to look at themselves and try to model the images they see," Kalyango said, elaborating that the phenomenon is not a one-way process. "It's from interactive interpersonal masses to masses, friends to friends. This can also create inner turmoil because individuals may develop assumptions that they are not as perfect as the image they present to their peers on social media."

Negative body image was especially prevalent in participants who were trying to lose weight.

"Such an online climate could trigger the development of body shame due to over-comparison to unrealistic images," Kalyango said, explaining that the study did not predict BSQ or EAT scores, which are commonly used to assess eating, exercise and food attitudes. However, other research has demonstrated that negative body image can develop into unhealthy eating and dieting habits.

"In my opinion, this online social comparison media environment creates a perfect breeding ground for the development of disordered eating, and therefore poses as a risk factor, especially among the highly susceptible group of college women," he said.

Collaborators on the study are Professor Petya Eckler of the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, and graduate students Ellen Paasch, now at the University of Iowa, and Stephanie Smith of Ohio University. The team's next steps in the project include analyses of the qualitative data sets, as well as expanding the research to survey college males.

The study also will be expanded to include more women from around the world, including Central Asia and Africa. However, the researchers do not expect to find similar results in non-Western countries due to cultural differences regarding body image, said Kalyango, who also serves as the director of the Institute for International Journalism at Ohio University.

The findings will be presented at the International Communication Association in Seattle, Wash., in May. The study also is being revised for scholarly publication. 

Photo of Yusuf Kalyango by Ben Siegel, Ohio University