Expert Commentary

Instagram eye-tracking study sheds light on how women view images of other women

The young female participants in the study paid more attention to Instagram posts that included bodies rather than just faces, and they preferred looking at underweight and average weight images to the images of overweight people.

Sunglasses with Instagram logo
Photo by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay.

For several years now, studies have shown that social media images, including those on Instagram, that promote thinness and unrealistic ideals of beauty can have a negative impact on the viewers’ body image, particularly teen girls and young women.

Most of those studies are based on surveys and interviews with participants. But the authors of a new study took a technological approach. They used eye-tracking technology to determine which type of images the participants focused on and how the participants’ own body satisfaction impacted what parts of the images they fixated on.

They find image content and the users’ own body satisfaction influence the when and where of eye movements when viewing images on Instagram.

The 60 young female participants paid more attention to Instagram posts that included bodies rather than just faces, and that they preferred looking at underweight and average weight images to the images of overweight people. They also avoided looking at images that reflected areas of their own body with which they were not satisfied, researchers find.

“These results provide insight into the mechanisms of a potentially dangerous cycle promoted by social media platforms,” the authors write. Exposure to damaging images leads to negative social comparison and as result personal dissatisfaction in users. “This in turn could promote a perceptual bias to selectively attend to more damaging [images],” they write.

‘Thinstagram’: Image Content and Observer Body Satisfaction Influence the When and Where of Eye Movements During Instagram Image Viewing,” by Graham Scott, Zuzana Pinkosova, Eva Jardine and Christopher Hand, was published online in August 2022 in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

“Future research can build on this and come up with some proposed guidelines for social media companies, particularly around filters and algorithms, which may expose vulnerable users to damaging content,” Scott, the lead author of the study and Reader in Psychology in the School of Education and Social Sciences at University of the West of Scotland, wrote in an email to The Journalist’s Resource.

The findings also can help social media users be more aware of how they consume content.

“Often being aware of the potential problem is important so that you can monitor your own behavior and are aware of the potential impact of what you’re viewing,” he added.

Research suggests that actively engaging with social media, such as commenting on others’ posts and posting about yourself, is more beneficial to mental health than just passively observing content created by others, Scott explained. “This may be especially true when viewing potentially harmful content,” he wrote.

Before the Facebook Files

The association between Instagram and young women’s body image and mental health came to the spotlight in September 2021, when the Wall Street Journal published the Facebook Files, revealing internal research by Facebook and Instagram, both of which are owned by Meta. One slide from an internal presentation by researchers at Facebook found Instagram makes, “body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” the Journal reported.

Outside the company, researchers have been reporting these negative associations for several years.

One study, published in the journal Body Image in December 2017, finds that among 259 women between ages 18 and 29 years old, those who followed appearance-focused accounts on Instagram were more likely to want to be thin.

In severe cases, body image issues can lead to eating disorders, which can be life threatening. One study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in September 2017, finds “a strong and consistent association between social media use and eating concerns in a nationally-representative sample of young adults ages 19 to 32 years.” Another study, published the journal Eating and Weight Disorders in March 2017, finds that higher Instagram use was associated with greater tendency towards orthorexia nervosa, an obsession with healthy eating and associated restrictive behaviors.

How the eye-tracking study was conducted

Researchers recruited 60 women who were 21 years old on average. None reported an eating disorder diagnosis. The participants viewed 12 images organized in a 3×4 grid, similar to Instagram.  The images included underweight, average weight and overweight women. The researchers also collected the participants’ body satisfaction data using the Body Satisfaction Scale questionnaire. They then recorded the participants’ eye movements.

Eye-tracking relies on sensor technology that follows what someone is looking at in real time. The eye movement is then converted into data. Eye-tracking has been used to study how women view their own bodies and the bodies of others.

Researchers recorded participants’ gaze as they viewed the Instagram-like grid. They analyzed two types of eye movement that have been commonly used in eye-tracking studies investigating social media: the bottom-up eye movement, which relates to the viewers’ initial attention to features of the image, and the top-down eye movement, which relates to personal beliefs and values, and in this study, the participants’ own body satisfaction.

The results of the study shouldn’t be generalized to all social media platforms, especially those that are more text-focused, the authors write. The authors also note several limitations to their study, including their focus on Instagram only and having only healthy female volunteers. “Future research should look to expand the current findings by focusing specifically on vulnerable populations,” including those who may be prone to eating disorders, they write.

They add that the “impact of exposure to idealized and sexualized images of men on male participants should also be investigated, as eating disorders are a significant problem for males as well as females.” Future research could examine how male participants view images of underweight, average, and overweight faces and bodies, and compare viewing patterns between genders, they write.

What other recent studies show

Several other new studies have found an association between social media use, including Instagram use, and negative body image. Some of those studies offer solutions.

Many papers focus on girls and women, because research has shown that female social media users are more likely than males to look at photos of members of their own gender and compare themselves.

In a review article, “Social Media and Body Image: Recent Trends and Future Directions,” published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology in December 2021, researchers found platforms that were more image-based, including Instagram, were more likely to be associated with negative body image than those that are mostly text-based, including Facebook. They also found the process of taking and editing selfies before they were posted was associated with negative body image. And body positivity content had a positive effect on body image.

“Social media clearly does not impact all people equally,” the authors write. “Future research is needed to examine individual differences that may moderate the relationship between different aspects of social media use and body image and the mechanisms that may be relevant to different people.”

They add: “Given the pervasive use of social media globally, it is vital that we understand the impact of social media on body image and find ways to create a more positive social media experience for users.”

The authors of “Instagram Use and Body Dissatisfaction: The Mediating Role of Upward Social Comparison with Peers and Influencers among Young Females,” published in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in February 2022, found “browsing on Instagram was associated with lower levels of body appreciation, fully mediated by upward social comparison with social media influencers, not close or distant peers.” Adolescent girls and women who had higher Body Mass Index were more likely to have worse appreciation of their own bodies.

The study was based on the survey of 291 adolescent girls and young women across Europe with an average age of 20 years.

“The findings of our study highlight the need for public health interventions to raise awareness about the posting practices of social media influencers and to strengthen a positive body image, with special attention to particularly vulnerable girls,” the authors write.

In “The Looking Glass Selfie: Instagram Use Frequency Predicts Visual Attention to High-Anxiety Body Regions in Young Women,” published in Computers in Human Behavior in July 2020, researchers used eye-tracking technology to study the Instagram viewing behavior of 157 U.S. women between ages 18 and 35 years. They found participants who were satisfied with their bodies selectively paid attention to Instagram images that didn’t cause them a lot of anxiety in their own bodies — and avoided looking at images that images that related to areas of their body that caused them more anxiety. In contrast, individuals who were not satisfied with their bodies spent as much time on images that reflected the high-anxiety regions of their bodies as low-anxiety areas.

“Images of our bodies may be more commonly encountered on social media than in ‘real’ life, offering a visual reminder of appearance and repeated opportunities for self-evaluation within the context of social comparisons,” the authors write.

In “The Psychological Consequences of Envying Influencers on Instagram,” published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking in October 2022, researchers surveyed 305 U.S. participants who viewed posts of were shown the 20 most recent Instagram posts of a randomly assigned social media influencer who specialized in entertainment, beauty, fitness or fashion, found a “direct negative relationship between envy and affective well-being, but a positive indirect effect through inspiration.”

Some studies offer solutions

There are some optimistic findings related to Instagram.

In “Experiences of First Year Undergraduate Nursing Students Using Instagram in Their Clinical Practicum During COVID-19 Pandemic: A Qualitative Study,” published in the journal Nurse Education Today in October 2022, interviews with 15 first-year nursing-degree students at the Nursing Department of the Universidad Europea de Madrid revealed that the use of an internal Instagram account improved the students’ interactions with their professors..

The professors uploaded key information related to the training activity in clinical courses by posting on “feed” and “stories.” Their aim was to encourage student engagement using internal Instagram tools such as surveys, questions, videos, and images, according to the study.

“The participants described that Instagram helped them to stay in contact and established an important connection between the hospitals where they performed the practicums and the university,” the authors write.

And some studies point to possible ways to improve the body image of Instagram users.

In “Women’s Response to, Awareness of, and Interest in Body Functionality Content on Instagram,” published in the journal Body Image in August 2022, researchers examined 318 women’s responses to “body functionality” content on Instagram, which emphasizes what the body can do instead of how it looks. The participants’ satisfaction with their appearance and bodies was highest after viewing Instagram images that focused on body functionality. It was also high among those who viewed inspirational “fitspiration” images that included messages that encouraged women to value and appreciate what their body can do. (Fitspiration images contain athletic, toned and often thin models who are engaged in physical activity.)

“Diversifying content on social media, particularly with content relating to ways in which to appreciate, value, and respect the functionality of one’s body, may be helpful in buffering the negative effects of social media,” the authors write.

In “A Meta-Analytic Review of the Relationship Between Social Media Use and Body Image Disturbance,” published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior in July 2019, researchers analyzed 63 studies from around the world and found an association between social media use and negative body image.

The authors of the review offer that one way to combat this negative impact is through programs that raise awareness about the digital manipulation of images on social media.

“If users are aware that appearance-focused use of social media, like making social comparisons, can be damaging to their body image, then if social comparisons are indeed inefficient, users should be able to focus on more positive types of use when engaging and viewing content on social media instead,” the authors write.

The authors also emphasize that their findings show an association not causation.

Another study, “The Effects of Body-Positive Instagram Posts on Body Image in Adult Women,” published in the journal Body Image in September 2022, found “viewing body-positive Instagram content would result in greater levels of body satisfaction and body appreciation compared to thin-ideal and appearance-neutral content on Instagram.”

The study of 205 women between 18 and 76 years old assessed how viewing body-positive content affected the women’s view of their own bodies. Body positivity is defined as “an all-encompassing love and respect for one’s body, founded on attitudes such as the appreciation for the beauty and function of one’s body and acceptance of one’s body despite idealized societal messages,” the authors write.

“In order to counteract the negative effects of social media on body image, we suggest that women diversify their content by following and interacting with diverse body-positive influencers and accounts,” the authors write. “The findings of the current study can be used to encourage women of all backgrounds, shapes, and sizes to embrace the beauty of their diversity and uniqueness.”

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