Issue 46 | Social Media and Body Image

About this resource

NEDC e-Bulletin

Issue 46

Editor’s Note:

Social media is an important part of the way people engage with the world around them. Current research aims to understand the role that social media plays in relation to our mental health and wellbeing and encourages us to think about how we can mitigate any potential harms and maximise the opportunity. This month, we explore the effects of social media on body image, provide strategies for effective use of social media to support body esteem and seek to understand young people’s online media practices.

If you are interested in collaborating with the NEDC, we encourage you to join and become an NEDC member.


  1. Social Media and Body Image
  2. PhD Spotlight: Visibility, Social Media and Mental Health
  3. Follow NEDC on Social Media
  4. Current Research Articles

Social Media and Body Image

By Dr. Jasmine Fardouly

Dr. Jasmine Fardouly is a postdoctoral researcher working at Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health. Her current research interests include social influences on body image, particularly the influence of social media. Given the relevance of this topic, we asked Jasmine to discuss the links between social media and body image in young people.

Young People and Social Media

Social media is an important part of the lives of young people around the world. In Australia, approximately 72% of people actively use social media (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014). Overall, social media and internet use is highest among younger age groups. During 2014, those aged 15 – 17 years spent an average of 18 hours a week online, with 91% most commonly going online for social networking (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014). In addition, young female users typically browse social media for around 2 hours every day (Fardouly & Vartanian, 2015; Tiggemann & Slater, 2013). Although there are benefits to using social media (such as ease of keeping in contact with friends and connecting with communities of interest), there are some aspects of social media that may cause harm to the user. The most popular social media platforms for young people are Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Youtube (ACMA, 2013, Pew Research, 2015; Sensis, 2016), and these platforms are predominantly or entirely imaged-based. Because people tend to curate their social media feeds in order to present the best version of themselves on social media (Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin, 2008), some tend to post only the most attractive images on these sites. Viewing these attractive (and sometimes edited and/ or filtered) images of celebrities and friends on social media, and the appearance-related comments these images often receive, has the potential to negatively influence the body image of users.

The Impact on Body Image

Research shows that there is a link between spending more time on social media platforms or engaging with more appearance-related content (e.g., images) on social media and greater body image concerns and disordered eating among young men and women (see Holland & Tiggemann, 2016, for a review). However, brief exposure (10-20 minutes) to Facebook in an experimental setting does not seem to negatively impact women’s body image in general (Fardouly, Diedrichs, Vartanian, & Halliwell, 2015; Mabe, Forney, & Keel, 2014). Instead, general browsing of social media only appears to impact the body image of young women who have a greater tendency to compare their appearance to others (Fardouly et al., 2015), suggesting that some people may be more vulnerable to the effects of social media than others. As well as attractive images, there is a trend on social media (particularly on Instagram) to post fitspiration images, which are designed to motivate people to exercise and eat healthily. Although these images may motivate people towards a healthier lifestyle, viewing these images can also increase women’s body dissatisfaction, particularly when women compare their body to the thin and lean bodies in these images (Tiggemann & Zaccarco, 2015). Appearance comparisons are a key factor in the link between social media usage and body image concerns (e.g., Kim & Chock, 2015; Tiggemann & Zaccardo, 2015), perhaps because users judge themselves to be less attractive than others when browsing this platform.

Preventative Measures

Because young people spend so much time on social media, it is important that we find ways to reduce potentially harmful influences that it may have on their wellbeing. Social media is so engrained in our society that it may not be effective to suggest that people stop using social media altogether (although spending less time on these platforms may be helpful).

Increasingly, media literacy programs are being introduced in schools across Australia to educate young people on appropriate social media use and to increase awareness that social media may not always reflect reality. Such programs aim to develop critical thinking skills in students which can be applied in their everyday lives, including their engagement with social media. Managing cyberbullying, being aware of triggering versus inspiring content and appearance comparisons are other important topics covered in educational programs.

During 2011-2016, The Safe and Well Online project rolled out four social marketing resources promoting safe and healthy online behaviour for young people aged 12-18 years old. The impact of these resources was measured overtime. Included in these resources was an app, ‘Appreciate a Mate’, that aimed at promoting positive peer-to-peer communication and body image by mobilising existing popular digital practices to facilitate desired attitudes. This app was found to be successful in promoting self-esteem and social connectedness through the creation and sharing of inspirational messages (Spears, Taddeo, Collin, Swist, Razzell, Borbone & Drennan, 2016). Such findings are predicted to inform future directions for preventative measures encouraging positive and safe use of social media.

Social Media Safety Mechanisms: What are we currently doing?

Although social media poses potential risks, safety mechanisms and initiatives have been established within Australia to encourage a positive experience.

  • eSafety: this website provides teenagers, parents, and teachers with educational materials and resources related to social media use and cyberbullying. This site also provides information on the policy and privacy functions embedded within frequently used social media platforms and apps to encourage and guide user safety. Direct links to policies and guidelines on reporting content, managing privacy settings and contacting social media support centres are included.
  • Stay Smart Online: a government initiative providing advice on how to use social media safely.
  • Researchers are looking into trialling social media literacy programs that encourage users to think about the selective and edited nature of many images on social media and to think about people's motives for posting those images.


Many social media sites now have mechanisms to support help seeking with their online communities?

In some cases, these mechanisms direct users to resources specific to United States of America, Canada and United Kingdom. However, resources for other countries, including Australia, are in development.

Familiarise yourself with these mechanisms by clicking the links below:


Strategies for Safe Social Media Use

  • Unfollow pages that may be triggering or encouraging comparisons. It may be helpful to trial this for a few days and monitor your feelings, thoughts and attitudes to see if they start to shift and be less critical.
  • If you come across a post including content that may be triggering or harmful to yourself or others, report the post. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have an option to report individual posts and space to provide reasoning for this. The links included in ‘Did You Know?’ will help guide you.
  • If you come across triggering media articles (magazines, news, advertising) being shared on social media, report this to Sane Australia via Stigma Watch.
  • Before posting or sharing personal stories or media articles discussing topics around mental health, read the Mindframe Guidelines to make sure the content is appropriate. In addition to this, Mindframe and the NEDC have developed guidelines specific to the reporting and portrayal of eating disorders. You can access the guidelines here.
  • If working in a professional capacity, become familiar with the above guidelines and other social media safety mechanisms to educate, evaluate and encourage appropriate use amongst your clients.


Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2014). Household use of information technology, Australia, 2014-15. Retrieved from:

Fardouly, J., Diedrichs, P. C., Vartanian, L. R., & Halliwell, E. (2015). Social comparisons on social media: The impact of Facebook on young women's body image concerns and mood. Body Image, 13, 38-45.

Fardouly, J., & Vartanian, L. R. (2015). Negative comparisons about one's appearance mediate the relationship between Facebook usage and body image concerns. Body Image, 12, 82-88.

Holland, G., & Tiggemann, M. (2016). A systematic review of the impact of the use of social networking sites on body image and disordered eating outcomes. Body Image, 17, 100-110.

Kim, J. W., & Chock, T. M. (2015). Body image 2.0: Associations between social grooming on Facebook and body image concerns. Computers in Human Behavior, 48, 331-339.

Mabe, A. G., Forney, K. J., & Keel, P. K. (2014). Do you “like” my photo? Facebook use maintains eating disorder risk. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 47, 516–523.

Pew Research. (2015). Teens, social media & technology overview 2015. Retreived from.

Sensis. (2016). Social media report, 2016. Retrieved from.

Spears, B.A., Taddeo, C.M., Collin, P., Swist, T., Razzell, M., Borbone, V., & Drennan, J. (2016). Safe and Well Online: learnings from four social marketing campaigns for youth wellbeing. Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, Melbourne.

Tiggemann, M., & Slater, A. (2013). NetGirls: The Internet, Facebook, and body image concern in adolescent girls. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 46, 630-634.

Tiggemann, M., & Zaccardo, M. (2015). “Exercise to be fit, not skinny’’: The effect of fitspiration imagery on women’s body image. Body Image, 15, 61-67.

Zhao, S., Grasmuck, S., & Martin, J. (2008). Identity construction on Facebook: Digital empowerment in anchored relationships. Computers in Human Behavior, 24, 1816-1836.

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PhD Spotlight: Visibility, Social Media and Mental Health

By Natalie Hendry

We spoke with Natalie Hendry about young people’s online media practices. Natalie is an education lecturer at Deakin University and PhD candidate in the School of Media and Communications at RMIT University. Her research explores social media cultures and young people’s media practices and experiences of mental illness. Natalie’s work draws on her experience as a teacher in both hospital and mainstream school settings.

Background to this study

Social media platforms make young people’s worlds visible, whether that be through sharing and tagging Instagram photos “on the go,” collecting and re-pinning images on Pinterest, or curating photo albums after special events on Facebook (Hjorth & Hendry, 2015, Scolere & Humphreys, 2015, Robards, 2012). Making sense of life through images is not new, although it is increasingly ubiquitous. Sociologist Martin Hand (2012:12) argues, as the proliferation of visual technologies “create a potentially ubiquitous photoscape with significant consequences, the ways in which images are produced, consumed, distributed and interpreted are tremendously diverse. Photography may be everywhere, but it is not everywhere in the same way.

Media studies consider the contexts of media and images, often through “media practices” – what people do and what it means (Couldry, 2012). Since 2013 I have been exploring these contexts through researching young women’s experiences of mental illness and recovery. This research is distinct in our field as it moves away from “media effects” – what impact media has on someone – to consider how media, young people and their social worlds are interconnected.


Four young women 14 to 17 years who were engaged with, and recruited via, a clinical adolescent mental health service in Melbourne participated in this in-depth ethnographic case study. The study explored the everyday media practices of these young women: what they did on social media, how and why they did this. To do this, the study incorporated a mixed methods approach including image collections, social media platform analyses, and semi-structured interviews involving digital platform ‘walk through’ activities over six months.

Participants self-reported anxiety disorder diagnoses, alongside other presentations including depression, deliberate self-harm, disordered eating and suicidal ideation. All described significant school absence, with some repeating senior years of schooling. Despite absenteeism, some continued to participate in theatre groups or learning new languages online. This presents a complex and nuanced picture about their capacity to engage socially and emotionally, while also successfully managing their anxiety in some spaces but not others.

Key Findings

Among the findings, two insights stood out:

  • These young women were highly attuned to visibility on social media and beyond. There was a sense of concern around how they were visible to others and who was visible to them.
  • By curating images on social media platforms that allowed anonymity, women felt relief from the pressures and frustrations associated with being visible and accountable to others. They were able to feel in control of who they were visible to through curation. Such platforms were recognised as creating communities of feeling.

Common Themes


For these young women, visibility was about how others saw them – as women, young people, and experiencing mental illness. The fatigue of needing to be “seen” to manage school (both their education and school-based relationships), family, friendships, and their identity, whilst working through their recovery was significant, especially when these aspects of their life were exacerbated at times by their illnesses. Young people are visible on social media, but not everywhere in the same way.

Participants acknowledged that social media didn’t necessarily produce these pressures, but made them visible. For example, others could see if they posted images to shared Facebook photo albums, or liked their friends’ content.

Managing social relationships, especially when participants were visible online, was challenging. They relied on the different affordances of social media to negotiate how they were visible, to whom and when. One young woman posted humorous and creative images to her Instagram to show her family and friends she was well, so that she didn’t have to re-tell everyone about her therapeutic progress. Others increasingly used “invisible” or direct modes of communication, such as private or direct messaging, or only socialising with one friend at a time at a café or at school. This reduced the overwhelming pressure to talk to “everyone.”

Communities of Feeling

Visual practices of curating images on platforms, like Tumblr and Pinterest, were strategies participants of this study used to manage the anxiety of being visible in their homes, schools and other social media platforms. Humour about the everyday challenges of being a young woman and experiencing anxiety or mental illness were common. This project revealed that memes and animated gifs shared on social media were important, and provided reassurance and relief.

This study looked closely at the reasons why participants engaged with certain social media platforms, and how this made them feel. One young woman explained that her use of Tumblr provided a space for her to collect and reblog images that made her feel less anxious and more connected to a larger group. The images were personal to her, but never images she photographed herself. Like other women in the study, she didn’t really converse with other Tumblr users, but enjoyed feeling like she was part of something bigger, without the “work” of actively connecting. In her words, these practices were “therapy”. She described her Tumblr use as being explicitly connected to her engagements with, what would formally be considered, clinical therapy.

This contrasts to earlier chat-based or contemporary forums where young people actively converse together (see Webb, Burns & Collin, 2008, for example). Of course platforms like Pinterest and Tumblr afford limited (and changing) conversation tools, and not all young people use these platforms in the same way. However, the affordances of these platforms, such as public anonymity (Cho, 2011), their visual focus on interests, and norms of shared content circulation through reblogging (Kanai, 2015) make them spaces for ambient connection through imaging practices. Media practices both shape the platforms, and the platforms shape media practices.

What Next? Rethinking Media Literacies

The implications of this project provide nuance to important research emerging from other health fields and disciplines, especially the diversity of “communities” on image-based platforms and how young people may seek disconnection from the pressures of visibility and peer relationships.

Traditional notions of community, where young people communicate with insiders or other group members, may be inadequate to make sense of how and why young people are engaging with social media platforms. Interventions may benefit from extending common notions of connectedness, as establishing relationships with people, to also include ‘feeling’ connected through shared, relatable content.

Utilising a ‘media practices’ approach requires us to ask why and how rather than what young people do. In this way, we might not recommend particular platforms or apps to a young people in clinical and education work, but instead seek to explore what practices young people do engage in and unpack what underlies those practices: their experiences, values, and attitudes; their social and personal cultures and environments; and the changing affordances and cultures of platforms.

By understanding the relationship between media practices and young people’s experiences we can better establish interventions that closely understand the diversity of young people’s media practices in recovery. From here, the project is continuing to develop media practice-based workshops for young people and practitioners, and to produce new recommendations for practitioners to support exploring media practices with young people to inform recovery interventions.


Cho, A. (2015). Queer reverb: Tumblr, affect, time. In K. Hillis, S. Paasonen, & M. Petit (Eds.), Networked affect. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Couldry, N. (2012). Media, society, world: Social theory and digital media practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hand, M. (2012). Ubiquitous photography. Cambridge: Polity.

Hjorth, L., & Hendry, N. A. (2015). A snapshot of social media: Camera phone practices. Social Media + Society, 1(1).

Kanai, A. (2015). Laughing through the discomfort: Navigating neoliberal feeling rules in a Tumblr attention economy. Presented at the The Australian Sociological Association Conference, Cairns, Queensland. Retrieved from

Robards, B. (2012). Leaving MySpace, joining Facebook: “Growing up” on social network sites. Continuum, 26(3), 385–398.

Scolere, L., & Humphreys, L. (2016). Pinning design: The curatorial labor of creative professionals. Social Media+ Society, 2(1).

Webb, M., Burns, J., & Collin, P. (2008). Providing online support for young people with mental health difficulties: Challenges and opportunities explored. Early Intervention in Psychiatry, 2(2), 108–113.

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Follow NEDC on Social Media

Social media can be a useful vehicle for information seeking and sharing. Following evidence-based organisations and services across social media platforms is encouraged to ensure reputable information is being received.

Follow the NEDC to keep up to date with upcoming projects, research and events within the eating disorders sector.

What we post
  • Existing and new resources
  • Emerging research on eating disorders
  • Opportunities to participate in current research studies
  • Infographics presenting information visually
  • Professional development and networking opportunities
  • NEDC activity including event and conference attendance

Current Research Articles

Studies that investigate the impact of social media on mental health are increasing. Recently, researchers have explored topics relating to body image, young people, image editing, eating behaviours and comparisons. Below is a list of current research articles and reports with open access.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2014). Household use of information technology, Australia, 2014-15.

Australian Communications and Media Authority. (2013). Like, Post, Share: Young Australians’ experience of social media. Quantitative research report: ACMA.

Boepple, L., & Thompson, J. K. (2016). A content analytic comparison of fitspiration and thinspiration websites. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49, 98–101.

Carrotte, E. R., Vella, A. M., & Lim, M. S. (2015). Predictors of “Liking” Three Types of Health and Fitness-Related Content on Social Media: A Cross-Sectional Study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 17(8), e205.

Cohen, R., & Blaszczynski, A. (2015). Comparative effects of Facebook and conventional media on body image dissatisfaction. Journal of Eating Disorders, 3(23).

Cruwys, T., Leverington, C. T., & Sheldon, A. M. (2016). An experimental investigation of the consequences and social functions of fat talk in friendship groups. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49, 84–91.

Hökby, S., Hadlaczky, G., Westerlund, J., Wasserman, D., Balazs, J., Germanavicius, A., … Carli, V. (2016). Are Mental Health Effects of Internet Use Attributable to the Web-Based Content or Perceived Consequences of Usage? A Longitudinal Study of European Adolescents. JMIR Mental Health, 3(3), e31.

Kalckreuth, S., Trefflich, F., & Rummel-Kluge, C. (2014). Mental health related Internet use among psychiatric patients: a cross-sectional analysis. BMC Psychiatry, 14, 368.

Pantic, I. (2014). Online social networking and mental health. Cyberpsychology, behaviour and social networking, 17(10), 652-657.

Pepin, G., & Endresz, N. (2015). Facebook, Instragram, Pinterest and co.: body image and social media. Oral presentation: 2015 ANZAED Conference.

Spears, B.A., Taddeo, C.M., Collin, P., Swist, T., Razzell, M., Borbone, V., & Drennan, J. (2016). Safe and Well Online: learnings from four social marketing campaigns for youth wellbeing. Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, Melbourne.

Yonker, L. M., Zan, S., Scirica, C. V., Jethwani, K., & Kinane, T. B. (2015). “Friending” Teens: Systematic Review of Social Media in Adolescent and Young Adult Health Care. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 17(1), e4.

The NEDC encourages the dissemination of evidence-based information. To find out more about upcoming studies in Australia and participate in research, visit Current Australian Studies here.

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