Social Networking Sites and Body Image in Young Adults: The Role of Self-Compassion

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Bradley, Graham L

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Duffy, Amanda L

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Social networking site (SNS) activities that entail exposure to idealised images of attractive women and men, or high investment in photo feedback through likes and comments, may reinforce feelings of inadequacy and negative body image. Given that young adults are the highest users of SNSs (Pew Research, 2019; Sensis, 2018), and that body dissatisfaction can increase further during the transition to young adulthood (Bucchianeri et al., 2013), the general purpose of this thesis was threefold. The first purpose was to identify pathways between appearance-related SNS use and negative body-related outcomes relevant to each gender, the second was to examine the mechanisms by which self-compassion affects the strength of these associations, and the third was to examine whether an intervention that aims to increase self-compassion helps reduce body concerns. Four studies were conducted to address four research aims. The studies were grounded in three main theoretical frameworks (a) objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) (b) social comparison theory (Festinger, 1954), and (c) Neff’s (2003) conceptualisation of self-compassion. The first aim was to examine the associations between three appearance-related SNS uses (viewing or following of celebrity, fashion, beauty/grooming content [CFB/G], viewing or following of fitspiration content, and the importance placed on likes and comments [ILC]) and body concerns separately for each gender. Specifically, part one of the first aim was to test a revised objectification-social comparison model on the associations between the three appearance-related activities and body concerns (body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness) in women. Part two of the first aim was to test a revised objectification model on the same three SNS uses and two indices of men’s drive for muscularity (attitudes and behaviour). The second aim was to examine the six facets of self-compassion as potential moderators of the links between SNS use and body-related outcomes in each gender. The third aim was to qualitatively explore how trait self-compassion is used by this age group as a strategy to alleviate appearance-related distress. The fourth aim, given that body concerns are experienced differently, are more common, and more severe in young women than young men (Grogan, 2008; Murnen, 2011), was to evaluate the effectiveness of a brief Mindful Self-Compassion workshop (Neff & Germer, 2013), followed by a 2-week discussion group on the SNS platform, Facebook, on improving body image in young women. These aims were fulfilled by collecting data from three samples of young adult undergraduates aged 17–25 years. Study 1and 1a comprised 338 women, and Study 2 and 2a comprised 303 men. Study 3 comprised 30 selected participants from Studies 1 and 2, and Study 4 comprised 76 women (42 = intervention, 34 = waitlist control). In Study 1, structural equation modelling supported a serial mediation model that comprised significant paths from two SNS activities (CFB and ILC) through, in turn, upward appearance comparison, body surveillance, and social appearance anxiety, to drive for thinness and body dissatisfaction. A direct effect on body concerns was found for use of fitspiration. In Study 1a, the three compassionate facets were shown to buffer the effects of fitspiration use on drive for thinness, while self-kindness buffered the fitspiration and upward appearance comparison link. The uncompassionate facets of isolation and overidentification strengthened the link between ILC and upward appearance comparison, and fitspiration and body dissatisfaction. In Study 2, structural equation modelling supported a serial mediation model that comprised significant paths from CFG and ILC through, body surveillance, then social appearance anxiety, and finally to attitudinal drive for muscularity. Fitspiration use was directly associated with attitudinal and behavioural drive for muscularity. In Study 2a, the uncompassionate facets of self-judgement and overidentification strengthened the associations between CFG and ILC and body surveillance. In Study 3, descriptive/confirmative analyses revealed that, for participants with high trait self-compassion, only self-kindness was utilised to alleviate appearancerelated distress. Most participants with low trait self-compassion engaged in selfjudgement, with some expressing a fear of self-kindness. The concept of common humanity was acknowledged by all, but not used as an affect regulation strategy. Most participants engaged in forms of overidentification. In Study 4, a series of ANCOVAs showed that, relative to a waitlist control, the intervention group reported lower upward appearance comparison, social appearance anxiety, body dissatisfaction, and drive for thinness, and higher body appreciation and self-compassion, at posttest and 1-month follow-up. All effects, except those for body dissatisfaction, held at 3-month follow-up. Additionally, regression analysis showed that common humanity predicted gains in body appreciation from pretest to posttest. In sum, findings revealed gender similarities on the type of appearance-related SNS used and pathways through which these uses could lead to relevant body-related issues. However, gender differences regarding how the facets of self-compassion may be understood, and thus utilised in protective ways were revealed, suggesting further research is required in this area. Encouragingly, a brief Mindful Self-Compassion program complemented by a Facebook discussion group was shown to improve body image and self-compassion in young women, suggesting that the use of SNSs can be harnessed in constructive and supportive ways.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Applied Psychology

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Social networking

Social networking site

appearance-related use

negative body-related outcomes



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