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Jul 28, 2022 | by Bryony Davies

The impact of Instagram content on body image and wellbeing

Understanding the impact of social media on how women feel about their bodies is important for understanding how body image affects physical and mental health. It can also help us better inform future interventions. 

In partnership with the University of Portsmouth, we explored how Instagram can influence female users’ life satisfaction. Bryony Davies, who led on the research, takes us through the key findings and their implications.

Key findings

Focusing on female Instagram users aged 18-25, the study used two datasets to explore:

  1. the relationship between body image and wellbeing (group 1)
  2. if body positive Instagram messaging leads to improvements in life satisfaction (group 2)

Our findings show that:

  • there is a positive correlation between how women feel about their bodies and how satisfied they feel with their lives as a whole (group 1);
  • exposure to images promoting unrealistic body ideals correlates with reduced life satisfaction in female Instagram users (group 2);
  • viewing any form of message or distractor image may help to prevent reduction in wellbeing (group 2). 

What do we mean by ‘body image’?

Body image is a construct describing our perceptions of and attitudes towards physical appearance, which are guided by our beliefs surrounding attractiveness (Cash, 2004). Positive and negative body image are not two opposing ends of a single continuum, but represent different multifaceted constructs (Tylka & Wood-Barcalow, 2015). Body image is broadly experienced and conceptualised differently between men and women (Grogan, 2006).

Methods, measures and analysis

The study focused on female social media users aged 18-25. Over 70% of Instagram users are aged 30 or under. Work previously done by the Centre showed that 20-25 year-olds have the highest levels of anxiety on average than any other.

Group 1:

  • Completed seven body image and life satisfaction measures, including the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS).
  • reported Body Mass Index (BMI).
  • reported level of Instagram use.
  • reported state of negative mood.

Group 2 were split into five different conditions to complete an Instagram browsing task:

  • All conditions were shown 24 fitspiration posts.
  • Four conditions interspersed distractor images or messages (self-compassion, satire, neutral, positive – see full briefing for full details).
  • The control condition did not view distractor images or messages.
  • All conditions were asked to self-rate their life satisfaction level before and after the task, using the SWLS. The scores were compared.

What do we mean by ‘fitspiration’?

Fitspiration is a term that describes exercise-themed images of women with fit and toned bodies. Through a guise of health promotion, fitspiration has been associated with unhealthy messages surrounding weight, diet and exercise.

Recommendations for action

Exploratory recommendations for policy makers based on our findings include formulating clear guidance on how images and messages about body image can be communicated positively online. This should use the evidence that is available. 

Evidence from this research has been used by the cross-party Health and Social Care Committee. Read the evidence submission to find out more.

What do we need to know more about

While this study focused on female body image, there has been an increase in negative body image among young men in recent years. According to the Good Childhood Report 2021, 1 in 8 boys are feeling unhappy with how they look. Future studies should look at the impact of male orientated appearance ideals and health communication on subjective wellbeing among male social media users. Studies should also expand the scope to explore impact of body image for all genders.

To determine whether online interventions targeting body image can positively impact broader wellbeing, further explorations are needed.

Researchers could also consider employing or developing more naturalistic methods for assessing the impact of Instagram (and health related information) on life satisfaction, for example ecological momentary assessment.

If you have any questions about the findings, or would like to share your own research, contact us.


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