It’s no secret that social media is a vapid place where people tend to obsesses over their self-image and how they come across to other people. This explains why image editing and retouching apps have become so popular in recent years, as users seek to upload the most flattering images possible. However, a new study cautions that this validation-seeking behavior may end up leaving people feeling worse and can even put them at risk of developing an eating disorder.
In a new study, researchers led by Pamela Keel, a professor of psychology at the Florida State University, surveyed 80 college students about how they feel about uploading photos of themselves on Instagram, the most popular photo-sharing app on the internet right now.
The volunteers were split into four groups, each with varying degrees of photo editing, including a group that posted unedited photos. This latter group proved the most revealing — by far.
Without having to employ any fancy statistical methods, the researchers could tell right away how anxiety-triggering these apps can be when they assigned participants to the non-edited selfie group.
“Nine people read that part of the consent form (informing them they might be asked to post an unedited photo) and said, ‘No, thank you,’” Keel said in a statement. “Another two participants consented, but when they learned they’d been assigned randomly to the group to upload unedited photos, they dropped out.”
This means that 1 in 8 participants preferred to drop out of the study rather than post an unadulterated photo of themselves on social media. When asked about this objection, a volunteer simply rationalized their decision “because there is this anxiety.”
“We were only able to study the people who were at least willing to post an unedited photo of themselves,” Keel added.
The results showed a “consistent and direct” link between posting photos that may look good on Instagram and negative thoughts about weight and shape. This can have behavior-modifying consequences such as increasing exercise, which is a good thing, but could also lead to food intake restrictions and elevated levels of anxiety.
The researchers added that even the simple act of uploading photos can exacerbate these factors and editing photos only makes matter worse.
“Just posting a photo, whether or not it’s edited, caused increases in body concerns,” Keel said. “But editing photos before posting caused an even greater increase in those concerns.”
The findings appeared in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.