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Can We Improve Young People’s Social Media Experiences?

Could labeling media images that have been doctored help?

Key points

  • Social media use may be detrimental to youth who compare themselves to the images they see online.
  • Labeling images as edited or unattainable has been suggested to attenuate the body dissatisfaction that may result from social media use.
  • Recent research examined young women's responses to Instagram images that have been labeled and presents surprising findings.

I have one friend who doesn’t have an account on any social media site. One. Sure, I know several adults who spend hardly any time on social media, but most of us find ourselves engaged in a parenting or work-related group on Facebook or following the news or fashion trends on Instagram or Twitter. Some of us join social media sites to keep up with the times or to try to understand what our kids are up to.

Speaking of kids, obtaining use of social media is a sort of rite of passage for them (if parents or guardians prohibit use until a certain age), and social media can easily become the nexus of their social lives.

 Disobey Art/Shutterstock
Source: Disobey Art/Shutterstock

As social media use has become more widespread, the concerns associated with young people’s engagement in virtual social worlds have received a great deal of attention. Chief among these concerns is the artificiality of individuals on social media and the editing of self-presentation to fit maladaptive ideals—whether they are beauty, gender, athletic, or other achievements. When kids see “perfection” online, they can’t help but want to emulate it. Who doesn’t have something about themselves they wouldn’t like to improve or change? Who is totally immune to the edited and stylized images and messages we confront on social media? When we see aspirational posts on social media, we tend to compare ourselves to them—or engage in what psychologists call social comparison—and the result is typically a sense of dissatisfaction with ourselves.

One proposed antidote to the harm caused by social media social comparison is media literacy education. A cornerstone of media literacy education tends to be helping young people to understand that a majority of the images presented in the media are not representative of reality. “It’s all fake! It’s all been edited! This is not how real people look!” are all messages I’ve repeatedly shared with tweens and teens, including my own children. What would happen if the images that young people viewed were actually labeled to indicate that they were, in fact, edited?

A recent study examined the efficacy of labels indicating that images of a thin and attractive woman viewed on Instagram were edited. The goal was to determine whether these labels (or, as the researchers called them, “self-disclaimer captions”) prevented young women from experiencing negative mood and body image consequences often associated with Instagram use. Some of the participants viewed what appeared to be regular Instagram news feeds featuring a female model; some saw these news feeds with labels on the images indicating they had been edited; some saw these news feeds with labels indicating what was edited in the images (e.g., the model’s stomach); and some saw images with “warning labels” suggesting that comparing oneself to media images was detrimental.

First, here are the depressing findings from this study: The labels didn’t work. It didn’t matter if the participants saw the Instagram images of a thin woman without a label or with a general or specific label about what had been edited or even with a warning label instructing them not to compare themselves to the woman. In all of the experimental conditions, participants experienced a decrease in their body satisfaction, happiness, and confidence, and an increase in anxiety after viewing the images.

It’s intuitive that knowing something isn’t real will render it harmless, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. Nevertheless, policymakers have jumped on this possibility without having the data to support their efforts. Two countries—France and Israel—even require advertisements that have been edited to contain a label indicating this. However, this study of photo labeling revealed an interesting finding that offers hope. Participants who reported greater experience with photo manipulation themselves (i.e., editing the photos that they post of themselves online) and who saw labels indicating what had been edited in the photo (e.g., the model’s thighs) were less likely to report a tendency to compare themselves to the model. In other words, it appears that women who have experience with editing photos have a greater understanding that what they see online is likely edited, not realistic, and not something that should make them feel bad about themselves. Given how increasingly savvy young people are with photo editing, using filters, and the apps and software that allow for photo manipulation, it seems likely that young people may be less likely to be negatively affected by social media images, especially if they are labeled as having been edited.

Labeling media images as edited could be a relatively cheap intervention, but it seems we shouldn’t expect it to counter the negative effects of social media engagement for young women just yet. I asked one of the authors of the study, Dr. Jennifer Mills, why she didn’t think that labels were more effective in dissuading Instagram users from experiencing a decrease in mood and body satisfaction. She said, “Even if they know that the model doesn't look like that in real life, it doesn't mean that they don't want to look like that. Their visual attention has been put onto a feature or features of the photo that make them feel bad about themselves.”

Social comparison is viewed by psychologists as a normal and sometimes even necessary process. We look to others around us to try to understand ourselves and to see how we measure up. Once we’ve looked, it may just be hard to limit our tendency to compare—even if we know a model’s image has been edited. As Mills explained, “the more time you spend thinking about how you and other people look in photos, the worse you feel.” One of the best options may be to just avoid looking.

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