Reducing Body Image Disturbance Through Social Media
: The Efficacy of Message-based Micro-interventions

  • Bryony Davies

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


A growing body of evidence implicates social media use as contributing to increasing rates of body dissatisfaction among women in western societies. Given the human tendency to compare our own appearance to others, the proliferation of idealised, easily accessible, appearance-focused content available online is thought to be particularly detrimental. Research investigating how to mitigate the negative influence of such social media content is therefore needed. One possibility is to exploit the vast potential of social media itself, to distribute positive health promotions and interventions. However, research in this field is still in its infancy and how best to optimise online strategies for the protection of body image, and what forms of intervention might be most effective, is not fully understood.
The current programme of research contributes to knowledge in this area by developing and testing novel, Instagram-based micro-interventions for combatting the negative influence of appearance-ideal images. The general thesis examined within the research is whether strategies designed to reduce instances of appearance comparisons during everyday Instagram browsing would be successful in protecting users’ body image. In Study One, a novel Think Aloud Protocol was used to examine how women engage with appearance- focused content during browsing, and what this reveals about the process of social comparison. Analysis of participants’ real-time reactions to fit-ideal images, and images seen on their own Instagram feeds, revealed that participants naturally engage with most forms of content online by making automatic judgements, forming personal associations and considering the personal consequences of images to them. A framework for understanding natural engagement with Instagram content is presented which identifies the importance of extended social information when observing and judging appearance-focused images via social media. Study Two used a two-part protocol to inform the specific design of Instagram- based micro-interventions. In Part 1, the narratives of 20 experienced social media users informed the identification of possible methods and nature of interventions that would be most likely to engage women online. In Part 2, user evaluations of three different prototype micro-intervention messages (appearance-related self-compassion, humorous and factual messages) were conducted with 192 social media users. Results showed that appearance- related self-compassion messages and humorous messages were perceived to be the most effective for combatting appearance comparisons with idealised images. In Study Three, three experiments involving a total of 635 female social media users, tested the efficacy of the two message types identified in Study Two, relative to appearance-neutral control images for mitigating the negative influence of fit-ideal Instagram browsing. Results indicated that appearance-related self-compassion and humorous body image messages were no more effective at protecting against negative appearance and lifestyle effects than appearance- neutral images (Experiment 1), even when personal message relevance to the participant was increased through experimental manipulation (Experiment 2). Rather, the impact of fit-ideal imagery on body image outcomes appeared sensitive to the presence of any post which did not contain images of women, regardless of message focus, compared with exposure to fitspiration images alone, a finding which extended to other image types and to natural (live) browsing rather than simulated browsing (Experiment 3). Overall, this suggests that buffering appearance-ideal Instagram images with other images may be an effective form of intervention, and that methods do not have to link directly to body image to be effective.
Date of Award21 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorMark Turner (Supervisor), Julie Udell (Supervisor), Janet Wilson (Supervisor) & Clare Wilson (Supervisor)

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