A recent study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, found a "consistent and direct link" between posting edited photos on Instagram and eating disorder risk factors.
CNN  — 

Turns out, all those selfies we’ve edited and posted on social media could be more problematic than we thought.

A recent study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, found a “consistent and direct link” between posting edited photos on Instagram and eating disorder risk factors – such as concerns over a person’s weight and shape, as well as urges to exercise and to restrict food intake.

The study’s release comes amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has left many people suffering with eating disorders facing new challenges. Support groups estimate that as many as 30 million people in the US are living with an eating disorder.

“Although people may think it’s harmless to post edited photos to Instagram, we found this increases eating disorder risk,” Pamela Keel, a professor at Florida State University and co-author of the study, told CNN.

“It’s important for people to know how to use social media safely as they turn more to these platforms to stay connected during this pandemic.”

‘That activity was not okay’

Keel and her team of researchers at the university, who released the study’s findings on Wednesday, surveyed 2,485 undergraduate students (76% female), asking whether they use editing apps that go beyond Instagram’s filters in altering a person’s appearance before they post.

Students also answered questions related to their attitudes about eating, their anxiety levels, and depression symptoms.

About 26.6% of the respondents – one in three women, and one in 14 men – said that they were editing photos before uploading them to their Instagram accounts, according to the study.

The study found higher levels of anxiety and eating pathology for respondents who said they post edited photos to Instagram. People who said they posted edited photos were almost twice as likely to score above the threshold for a probable eating disorder than those who didn’t, Keel said.

However, that’s not what the study’s authors found most shocking. Previous research has already pointed to links between using social media and increased body dissatisfaction.

So Keel and her team decided to take their research further by conducting an experiment specifically looking at whether the actual act of posting edited photos increases the risk factors for eating disorders.

In the experiment, 80 students – among those who said they use editing apps – had their photos taken by the researchers over a neutral background.

Students were asked to look at the photo of themselves for one minute, then they completed a questionnaire to establish their baseline levels around variables associated with disordered eating, anxiety and depression.

After that, they were randomly assigned to one of four possible tasks: editing and posting the picture, posting the picture without editing it, editing the picture without posting it, or neither editing nor posting the picture. They then answered more questions, which allowed the researchers to note any changes in their perceptions from the baseline they established initially.

Researchers discovered that posting a picture, edited or not, caused people to feel more concerned about their weight and shape. They also saw that the combination of editing and posting the photo was associated with an even more significant increase in those concerns.

“That’s important,” Keel said, “because those weight and shape concerns are the most potent risk factor for the development of an eating disorder. So we were able to see that in real time that that’s just, that activity was not okay.”

How editing and posting photos can impact your mental health

The practice of editing photos often forces people to identify something wrong with their appearance, according to Keel.

“You have to first go through the process of saying: what’s wrong with what I look like? What do I fix?”

Putting a photo out there for others to look at, right after going through this mental inventory of flaws “might not feel very reassuring,” Keel added.

Still, the study also concluded that the negative consequences of posting edited photos may be temporary. A follow-up with the surveyed students, conducted 24 hours after the initial study, found the effects of the experiment had largely waned.

However, the study also required participants to take a 24-hour break from social media, a deviation from their habit of spending on average at least one hour per day on Instagram.

Editing ourselves to perfection

The results of the study confirm what some experts who specialize in eating disorder prevention have known to be true.

“We are not surprised that this study found that editing your own photos is shown to increase risk,” Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, told CNN.

“We live in a society obsessed with celebrity and influencer culture that values unrealistic and narrow ideals of beauty. This culture stokes comparison and the impulse to edit ourselves to ‘perfection’.”

Some people have criticized platforms like Instagram for not doing enough to remove harmful content for users who are at higher risk of developing an eating disorder, or are already affected by one.

Carolyn Merrell, global head of policy programs at Instagram, said the platform regularly consults with experts, including the National Eating Disorders Association, “to develop resources that encourage people to share real moments, find supportive communities, and manage any pressure they may feel.”

“While we do not allow content that promotes or encourages eating disorders, we recognize that people may feel pressure to look a certain way on social media,” she told CNN.

“We recognize that people, especially young people, experience anxiety and pressure to portray a ‘perfect life’ or body image on social media, rather than engage in authentic expression.”

Merell said Instagram has also launched initiatives, such as the 2019 “Pressure to be Perfect” campaign. The initiative offered toolkits for teens and parents to “help them learn ways to mitigate pressures on the platform, while still feeling comfortable expressing themselves,” Merell said.

Moving forward: less editing, more self acceptance

Keel doesn’t think that the developers of social media platforms were actively trying to cause harm.

But she said she believes in the importance of “establishing that social media use can be harmful,” in order to let people know “what things they might want to avoid.”

“It’s even better if we can identify positive things that people could do, positive uses of social media that would actually make them feel better about themselves and reduce their anxiety,” Keel said. “That’s the future direction we’re interested in.”

The professor, who practices what she preaches, said she will participate in a virtual dance flash mob held over Zoom this upcoming Saturday, called “Shake it for Self Acceptance.”

“It’s about loving yourself as you are and being strong. The whole point of it is for us to get out there as we really are, no filters, no adjustments.”

Let’s strive for more of that on the internet.