Facebook can make us feel many things: joy over a friend's wedding, sadness over the ensuing divorce. And if you happen to be a woman, it could be making you feel something else: out of shape or plain fat.
That's according to an international team of researchers who, after surveying more than 800 women at an unnamed Midwest college, concluded that "more time on Facebook could lead to more negative feelings and more comparisons to the bodies of friends." Much of the problem in their view is that Facebook is a fantasy land of human anatomy: The ability to self-curate one's page allows people to publicize the most flattering photos of themselves (and untag or not post at all if they're embarrassed). After gazing at one tight, toned body after another, the researchers say, a woman using Facebook might be apt to develop a "poor body image."
Petya Eckler from Glasgow's University of Strathclyde explained the findings ahead of May's International Communication Association conference:
"Public health professionals who work in the area of eating disorders and their prevention now have clear evidence of how social media relates to college women's body image and eating disorders. While time spent on Facebook had no relation to eating disorders, it did predict worse body image among participants," said Eckler. "As experts in the field know, poor body image can gradually lead to developing an unhealthy relationship with food. The attention to physical attributes may be even more dangerous on social media than on traditional media because participants in social media are people we know. These comparisons are much more relevant and hit closer to home. Yet they may be just as unrealistic as the images we see on traditional media."
Why'd these guys focus on Facebook and not, say, Instagram or Myspace? (OK, Myspace is obvious.) Partly because it's the market leader among the various social-networking sites; college students are known to check it twice a day or more. Facebook's attraction to the female-student crowd is particularly strong, with research indicating that young women share more photos on the site than older women and men. Women are also 3.5 times more apt to post on Facebook about their weight than men, according to a recent study, with the majority of these updates being negative in tone and dealing with things like diet or exercise.
But there's also something inherent to Facebook that encourages women to focus on physical appearance. "Since women are generally more active on Facebook than men and utilize its benefits to maintain close relationships, they also are more likely to notice and recognize the commentary about body image," the researchers say. "Thus, though unintentional, Facebook sets a perfect arena for propagation of body-image dissatisfaction and fat talk."
It would be a stretch to say Facebook causes eating disorders. But the researchers say that negative feelings generated from looking at other people's photos could form the "first steps" toward disordered eating, or risky behaviors that sometimes can compound into a clinical eating disorder.