The impact of social media on adolescent mental health and diet
Kaitlin Conway-Moore explores how social media can present challenges for our health.
Social media provides wonderful opportunities for us to access information, connect with others and expand our world view. However, it can also present challenges for our health.
Along with encountering advertising for things like alcohol, tobacco, ultra-processed foods and gambling, interactions on social media can also expose users to sexual harassment, bullying, hate-based messaging and age-inappropriate content.
CO-CREATE is an EU-funded project involving young people in developing policies to tackle obesity. In workshops aimed at understanding the drivers of adolescent obesity, young people (16-18) years in six countries consistently reported that social media—and in particular influencers and celebrities—negatively impacted their mental health, which in turn led to excessive and compulsive eating, while also reducing their motivation to exercise and eat healthy foods.
Based on what CO-CREATE youth reported, we conducted a systematic review to understand what the academic literature has to say about the impact of social media on adolescents’ mental health and diet outcomes. In the review, we included a specific focus on impacts to mental health such as body image, self-esteem, stress, interpersonal relationships/loneliness, anxiety, and depressive symptoms.
We also looked for studies that examined the impact of social media influencers, and inequality in mental health and diet outcomes among adolescents based on characteristics such as where they live, their race/ethnicity, sex/gender, education and socioeconomic status.
In the end, our review included 21 studies published between 2019 and 2023. It covered 12 countries (Australia, Canada, China, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Norway, the Philippines the Republic of Korea, Spain, Türkiye, and the United Kingdom), with information collected from between 60 and 244,000 adolescents, depending on the study.
The majority of the studies looked at the role of time spent on social media (13 studies), and its impact on body image (11 studies) and disordered eating symptoms (13 studies) at a single point in time.
A key finding from the review was that social media use had a negative impact on adolescent body image, as well as depressive and disordered eating symptoms. Four studies also showed the potential role of mental health in regulating the effect of social media on dietary outcomes, including:
- Social media impacting self-esteem which then impacted binge-eating;
- Social media impacting body image which then impacted disordered eating;
- Social media impacting a person’s concept of beauty, which then impacted their body image and ultimately their respect for feelings of hunger and fullness; and
- Social media impacting anxiety which then impacted emotional eating.
Sex and/or gender was the only individual characteristic examined in a total of eight studies, but findings about how it plays into the relationship between social media and adolescent mental health and diet were mixed.
Only one paper looked at the impact of influencers, and it was found that actively following influencers and following nutrition/diet-related content or makeup/personal care-related content was associated with adolescents experiencing anxiety related to how others perceive them. Following nutrition/diet-related content was also associated with emotional eating.
Based on the findings from this systematic review, we identify a need for policy interventions that target social media’s negative impact on adolescent mental health and diet, and in particular its impact on body image, depressive symptoms and disordered eating.
We also call on researchers to further examine the relationship between social media and adolescent mental health and diet by studying it over time and by including more of a focus on individual characteristics that could drive unequal mental health and diet outcomes. Lastly, we identify an urgent need for further research to be done on the impact of social media influencers on mental health and diet among young people.
Learn more about this study
If you are interested in learning more about this study, the full paper is published in Obesity Reviews, or please feel free to get in touch with myself (email@example.com) or lead author Laurence Blanchard (firstname.lastname@example.org).