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The Effects of Social Media On Body Image: 3 Tips for Healthier Social Media Habits from a Psychologist

Social media is one of the biggest influences on people’s body image today. How do photos on Instagram affect our body image, and how can we use social media in a healthy way? Renee Engeln — an award-winning professor of psychology — answers.

Interview has been edited for clarity.

Effects of social media on body image

Dr. Engeln says that part of the problem is that the images you see on social media don’t represent real life. They’ve been filtered and edited, and people will pose 100 times and pick just the right picture. When you see those pictures, it can give you the sense that everyone out there looks so ready all the time or that their lives are perfect.

“The problem with that is, it’s a normal human tendency to compare yourself to other people. So when you’re scrolling through your social media, and you see all these perfect-looking people, it’s really hard not to think about how you look in comparison with them. That could be really bad for your body image if you feel like you’re always losing this kind of competition.” 

The more energy we spend thinking about how we look, the less happy we tend to be, the less healthy we tend to be.

According to Dr. Engeln, social media can also negatively affect your body image by making you think about how you look all the time. Looking at pictures of other people all the time constantly draws our attention to our own appearance.

“And for most people, that’s really not a great idea. The more energy we spend thinking about how we look, the less happy we tend to be, the less healthy we tend to be. So it’s a good idea to take a break from social media and let your mind think about other things instead, whenever you can,” Dr. Engeln suggests. 

Additionally, there’s a more direct way that social media influences body image. Dr. Engeln says that a lot of celebrities or influencers try to sell things like dangerous or unhealthy weight loss and diet plans or beauty products that don’t actually do anything at all.

“So Instagram and other social media platforms can really reinforce this idea that women should be dieting all the time, that you should always be trying to lose weight. And that’s not particularly healthy either.” 

Comment sections can be particularly destructive, since they’re a hotbed of direct body shaming. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make social media a little bit healthier for you, and this is how Dr. Engeln believes it can be done:  

3 tips for healthier social media habits

  1. Be really careful who you follow. Don’t hesitate to block, hide, or unfollow people who make you feel bad about your body.
  2. Try to follow people who share healthy messages and people who talk about things other than how they look and how everyone else looks. 
  3. Spend some time away from social media. Dr. Engeln often encourages people to pretend they’re scientists conducting an experiment to stay off social media for a day and note the results. If you find that it makes you feel healthier or helps you have a more positive relationship with your body, then maybe that’s a sign that you need to cut back on social media.
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