Social media’s impact on mental health and body image

Since Dr. Jean Twenge started documenting the rise of the smart phone generation born after 1995 (what she dubbed iGen), researchers have been finding increasing evidence that social media is playing a key role in decreasing mental health and increasing body dysmorphia in the teenage population around the world, especially although not exclusively girls.

Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published an investigation entitled Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show

Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board…. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.

-Wall Street Journal

The Washington Post has reported on “Snapchat dysmorphia” in an article entitled Patients are desperate to resemble their doctored selfies. Plastic surgeons alarmed by “Snapchat dysmorphia.” The article references this study published in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery. The WashPo article quotes a Northwestern psychology professor as saying:

“Our sense of what’s real, what’s possible when it comes to beauty, is warped by our overexposure to these images…. Instead of seeing them for what they are, which is extraordinarily rare, we start to see them as typical or average.”

-Washington Post

The National Eating Disorders Association says on its website that social media is a significant contributor to eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

“We live in a media-saturated world and do not control the message. There is no single cause of body dissatisfaction or disordered eating. However, research is increasingly clear that media does indeed contribute and that exposure to and pressure exerted by media increase[s] body dissatisfaction….

-National Eating Disorders Association

These issues are not unique to North America. The BBC in the UK has reported on The complicated truth about social media and body image.

[U]sing social media does appear to be correlated with body image concerns. A systematic review of 20 papers published in 2016 found that photo-based activities, like scrolling through Instagram or posting pictures of yourself, were a particular problem when it came to negative thoughts about your body.


Even faraway Fiji has not escaped the impact of media generally on body image. In a culture that has traditionally prized being fat, the influx of TV has caused girls there to lament being too big, as reported by the New York Times around the turn of the millennium.

Just a few years after the introduction of television to a province of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, eating disorders — once virtually unheard of there — are on the rise among girls, according to a study presented yesterday at the American Psychiatric Association meetings in Washington. Young girls dream of looking not like their mothers and aunts, but like the slender stars [on popular shows].

-New York Times

In the academic marketing literature, researchers have generally shown the significant influence of influencers in an article entitled A Shoppable Life: Performance, Selfhood, and Influence in the Social Media Storefront published in the journal Communication, Culture and Critique.

Keeping these myriad configurations in mind, our paper focuses specifically on shoppability in fashion and lifestyle-oriented social media content, an arena that offers an instructive example for understanding how the integration of commerce and personal technologies has become a central pivot of lived experience in the early 21st century. The rapid maturation, heightened visibility, and seeming accessibility of this cultural work have magnified a set of relationships and tensions in the commercialization of self-presentation that are filtering through more routine expressions of sociality and selfhood online.

-Communication, Culture and Critique

Given the above research and the well-documented exponential rise in children and teens presenting at gender clinics over the last decade, tracking almost exactly with Twenge’s iGen, it is not unreasonable to posit that social media may be influencing young people to believe they have gender dysphoria. It is not even unreasonable to think that social media may even be giving young people gender dysphoria, especially during a period well known for intense identity exploration and development.

In some ways, perhaps this influence wouldn’t even matter. But when a quick path to medicalizing this distress in permanent ways is being offered to young people, then the question must be asked and researched in a non-biased, balanced, fair, and ethical way. This research is the furthest thing from transphobic. We should not be fearful of the answers, whatever they may show. This includes research on whether general societal acceptance is part of the equation – and to what extent.

Such open inquiry is to the benefit of all of society and will also aid in improving physical and mental healthcare for all people with gender distress, no matter where they are on their journey in life.

Thus, Genspect calls on all researchers and journalists – whether on the right, left, or middle – to investigate this phenomenon with an open mind. We also call on all editors and outlets – whether academic journals or mainstream media – to encourage, solicit, and facilitate such articles.

Photo credit: Ryan Arya, Pexels

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