Research has linked the use of social media to decreased social skills in the real world, depression, loneliness, and anxiety – but is scrolling, liking, and sharing your way through Instagram and Facebook really that bad for you?
According to at least one study, seeing fitness posts in your social media feed could motivate you in getting active or even excited about going to the gym. Statuses and updates with a proactive and body-positive message are certainly more likely to have this effect. But if some posts leave us with a worse self-image while others stimulate us to do better, what's the difference?
To learn more, we surveyed 1,000 people about their social media habits. We asked them how much time they spent online and how often they participated in certain social media trends like taking selfies. Read on as we explore their responses and how social media could affect your self-esteem, body image, and real-world behaviors – for better or worse.
The Digital Mirror
The saying "moderation in all things" applies to things that may (or may not) be healthy for us. The same may also be true for social media.
While research continues to show the adverse effects of social media on self-image, recent studies suggest these same applications and trends can potentially help bolster our self-esteem when comparing ourselves to others. According to our survey, the key may lie somewhere in how often most people use apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat daily.
We found men and women using social media for three or more hours each day were the most likely to rate their physical appearance as very or extremely important – over 59 percent. In contrast, those who didn't use social media at all were the least likely to feel especially motivated by their looks.
Today, more than 4 in 5 Americans use social media at least occasionally, and the percentage of users continues to rise year after year.
Of course, being concerned with how you look may not necessarily translate into a negative perception of one's body image. In fact, while more moderate social media users (between one and two hours daily) were more likely to rate their physical appearance as extremely important, those same users were the most likely to be satisfied with their looks. People completely unplugged from social media (nearly 47 percent) were almost equally as likely to be dissatisfied with their appearance as users logged in for three or more hours each day (about 49 percent).
Changing How You See Yourself
Selfies could be branded as the peak of vanity when it comes to social media, but should you really feel guilty about mastering your self-portrait?
Globally, there are more than 93 million selfies uploaded every day across social media platforms. However, research shows there's more to taking pictures than enjoying the way you look. As opposed to the belief that excessive social media use ultimately makes people feel worse about themselves, selfies may carry the opposite effect.
People who took more selfies on average (three or more every month) were more likely to rate their physical appearance as either very or extremely important compared to those who took less or none at all: over 65 percent compared to around 50 and 41 percent, respectively. And unlike the trend seen with extreme social media use, extreme selfie-takers were more likely to feel better about their bodies compared to people who took fewer pictures.
More than half of people taking even just a couple of selfies (or more) each month were more likely to have high self-esteem compared to the nearly 45 percent not taking any at all. Additionally, almost 54 percent of people taking three or more selfies each month were satisfied with their overall look compared to less than half taking one or two selfies and under 38 percent of people who took none at all.
More "Likes," Please
If you've ever posted a picture on social media and caught yourself frequently refreshing to see how many likes it's gotten, you're not alone. There's actually a scientific reason why getting likes (thumbs-up or retweets) on our posts make us feel so good: dopamine. Getting likes can have the same chemical response as consuming alcohol or drugs. Positive responses to digital content can create the tendency to keep refilling the emotional "reward cycle" social media users often experience.
The effects of all those likes can have a lasting impact on self-esteem and body satisfaction though. People who got more likes on their selfies (over 20 on average) were more likely to rate their physical appearance as very or extremely important, particularly among women compared to men.
However, men and women who received a higher number of likes on their selfies also rated their self-esteem higher, and men who received a higher number of likes were more likely to be satisfied with their overall looks. Only women were more satisfied with their overall look when they received a more moderate number of likes.
Getting a lot of likes on a selfie can make people feel better about themselves, but not getting enough likes can have the opposite effect.
In some cases, people admitted to deleting their posts if they didn't get enough likes. While women are more likely to experience the adverse effects of social media use, men who were avid social media users were roughly 15 percent more likely than women to delete posts due to a lack of likes.
In the same way mainstream media frequently perpetuates unattainable ideals of the perfect female form, men are often subjected to similar standards of masculinity and appearance that can negatively impact their body image and self-esteem.
Making Real-Life Edits
How much time people spent online changed the way they rated the importance of their appearance. How much time you spend scrolling through Instagram and Facebook can also have a profound impact on which parts of your body you're more likely to be dissatisfied with.
Men and women who spent very little time on social media on a daily basis were the most self-conscious about their muscles, face, and height. Respondents who spent some time (between one and two hours daily) plugged into social media were more concerned about their hair, legs, and skin.
Interestingly, people who spent three or more hours on social media each day wanted to most change their legs and teeth. Legs also ranked for people who took an excessive number of selfies every month. Despite the popularization of this trend, the thigh gap is one of the most unrealistic body image standards some women still aim to achieve.
A desire to change one's nose also popped up in the avid selfie-taker group, potentially attesting to the fact that selfies can make your nose look 30 percent larger than it is. As a result, more people are getting nose jobs to improve the aesthetic of their self-portraits.
People who spend an excessive amount of time on social media may not just be missing out on life because they're so invested in online activities – they could also be missing out on life due to self-esteem issues.
Two in 5 people who considered their daily use of social media as "avid" (three or more hours) said their primary body insecurity prevented them from accomplishing something in life. They admitted they were sometimes less likely to go on a date, be social or outgoing, or even apply for a job as a product of the insecurities they sometimes felt.
Social media users spending a "normal" amount of time online may be less likely to feel the extreme effects to their self-esteem, but over 30 percent also said their body insecurities got in the way of life (compared to less than 22 percent of non-users), including avoiding applying for jobs and promotions, going swimming, or dating.
Finding Your Confidence
There's no denying some of the adverse effects linked to excessive social media use. The power of social media can be so strong that it's been called an addiction, leading to the rehabilitation of teens and young adults who just can't seem to unplug from their digital lives.
As we found, though, moderate use of social media can be a positive aspect in many people's lives. People who logged on occasionally had higher self-esteem than those who didn't use social media at all. Still, spending too much time worrying about selfies or likes might not only negatively affect body image – it could cause you to miss out on real-world experiences.
We surveyed 1,000 people on their social media consumption habits and self-image to understand the role social media plays on the way we feel about ourselves and our life experiences. Forty-four percent of participants were female, and 56 percent were male. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 82 with a mean of 35.3 and a standard deviation of 11.0.
We excluded any participants who did not feel a need to change anything about their body. We weighted the data to the 2016 U.S. census for age and gender.
Fair Use Statement
Don't be afraid to share positive messaging online! Think your readers will enjoy our findings? Feel free to repost any of the data or images from our study for noncommercial use. Just make sure to include a link back to this page so readers can see our findings in their entirety.