The Surprising Downside of Instagram Compliments

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Researchers have been warning us for years that social media use can make it hard to maintain a healthy body image. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s spent time scrolling through Instagram’s endless array of filtered and carefully curated images -- images often designed to showcase a level of physical perfection that’s just not possible in real life. Studies have regularly shown that photo-focused social media activity in particular can make you feel worse about how you look, likely because you just can’t help comparing yourself to all those too-beautiful-to-be-true images. But recently published research adds a new twist to the link between social media and body image. A new study out of Flinders University in Australia suggests that it’s not just seeing Photoshopped selfies that does damage to your body esteem. Reading all of those “You’re so hot!” comments on the photos other people post makes things even worse.

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The researchers began by gathering a set of photos of women from public Instagram profiles. All of the photos featured full body shots in beautiful locations – the kind of photos you might take to show off a lovely vacation locale or a scenic hike. A group of raters evaluated the pictures on a number of dimensions, resulting in a final set of fifteen images. All of the women in these images were rated as at least moderately attractive, as were the locations the images featured. Each image was also judged to have a relatively equal emphasis on the woman in the photo and the background scenery.

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In a next step, the researchers created two different versions of this group of photos. In one version, the comments below each photo focused on how gorgeous the scenery was (for example, “Stunning beach!” or “Perfect location!”). In the other version, the comments focused on how attractive the woman was (for example, “Great legs!” or “You look hot!”). The researchers then recruited over one-hundred college women in Australia to participate in the study, which they called “Instagram: People and Places.” They randomly assigned these young women to view one of the two sets of Instagram posts.

The first key finding from this study was consistent with other research on social media and body image. Specifically, women’s body dissatisfaction increased after they looked at the Instagram images – no matter what type of comments the photos had. In other words, spending a few minutes scrolling through pictures of attractive women left the study participants feeling worse about their own bodies. But what’s more important is that the women who saw the images that included appearance compliments felt even worse about their bodies. Seeing all those “Look at me, I’m beautiful!” images isn’t great for your mental health, but reading all of those “You’re so hot!” comments below the pictures is an even worse blow to your body esteem.

Don’t be too critical towards your child’s exploration of the Internet. Children may come across adult material by accident on the web. Also, a child may intentionally search for such websites; remember that it is natural for children to be curious about off-limits material. Try to use this as an opening to discuss the content with them, and perhaps make rules for this kind of activity. Be realistic in your assessment of how your child uses the internet.

Instagram might be fun at times, but it also creates an online environment that sends women the message that nothing matters more than how they look. Just as receiving an appearance compliment can backfire, leaving you more worried about how you look, reading comments praising how beautiful another woman is can make you feel worse about your body. These comments also bolster the message that performing “sexiness” online is a good way to get attention and reinforcement, even though research has demonstrated that posting selfies actually decreases women’s confidence.

So what’s the solution? If you can’t step away from your Instagram account, at least try to fine tune it so that it’s a healthier place to spend your time. Unfollow people who only seem to post photos intended to provoke jealousy or garner appearance compliments. Make your own decisions about what to post carefully, focusing on building relationships and showing who you actually are instead of trying to create an image that doesn’t reflect the real you. If all else fails, just follow more cute animals!

Building confidence. Use descriptive praise to build confidence. An example would be “I like the way you picked up your toys. You’re so helpful,” instead of “that’s great.” Praise strengths unrelated to talking as well such as athletic skills, being organized, independent, or careful.

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