SOCIAL media has become a major part of everyday life.
According to one survey an average UK adult spends 102 minutes daily on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Studies have raised concerns about the negative consequences of social media for body image and self-esteem, particularly among women and young people.
Research into the impact of ‘thinspiration’ (images that promote the thin ideal) and ‘fitspiration’ (images that promote the fit ideal) content on women’s wellbeing has found links between viewing these images and greater body dissatisfaction and negative mood.
As a result, women are often encouraged to limit their ‘exposure’ to social media in order to protect their mental health.
However, in recently published research, a team from Durham University looked at how individuals manage their own social media feed through everyday acts such as following, unfollowing or muting.
The study explored how female weightlifters, particularly those recovering from eating disorders, navigate and manage their social media usage.
The study found that most participating women regularly viewed ’thinspiration’ and pro-eating disorder content online when suffering from an eating disorder, as well as ‘fitspiration’ imagery when recovering through weightlifting.
However, contrary to previous research, which has viewed women as ‘vulnerable’ to this kind of social media messaging, the researchers found that women developed strategies to sift through harmful online content and create healthier digital environments.
The participants took personal responsibility for the content they follow and took actions such as unfollowing unhelpful or triggering content, to protect their wellbeing.
The researchers termed this ‘digital pruning’ and noted that this is something often encouraged as an act of self-care.
This is advocated for, alongside other wellbeing tools such as regular exercise and time in nature.
However, the concept of digital pruning opens up discussion about who is expected to take responsibility for harmful or triggering content online.
Digital pruning takes time and requires a user to be aware of their personal triggers. But, not all women have the skills, energy or insight to achieve this.
To combat this, other research studies have looked at developing ways to protect ‘at risk’ groups (such as young women) from harmful media-effects by equipping them with the knowledge and skills to assess, analyse and create content online.
However, the research team at Durham University suggests that, as beneficial as these measures may be, by focusing on making women more resilient to harmful content, there is a risk that social media platforms, advertisers and influencers are absolved of their responsibilities.
Digital pruning may also prevent people from taking collective action, such as challenging harmful or sexist messaging, to make social media a safer place.
This in turn could result in some harmful content on social media continuing to grow.
The new research from Durham University emphasises the need to move away from perceiving women as passive victims of social media as the team found some women are actively curating what they see and engage with.
Instead the researchers argue that there is an urgent need for more communally minded approaches to make online spaces safe including embedding feminist principles within the content regulation policy.
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