The impact of Instagram on body image

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If you scroll on Instagram—which is owned by Facebook's parent company, Meta—for just a few minutes, you'll likely see a healthy dose of selfies, fitness content, artwork, vacation footage, and so on. 

These posts can be interesting and even inspiring in moderation. But when teens consume certain types of content (and too much of it), then Instagram can begin to have a negative effect on body image.

Does Instagram affect body image negatively?

In 2024, researchers worked with a group of 28 young people (between the ages of 18 and 25) to learn more about how Instagram content affected their body satisfaction. 

Researchers asked the young adults to flag—and log their feelings about—Instagram photos that fell into one of four categories: 

  1. Promoting the "thin ideal"
  2. Body positivity
  3. Fitness
  4. Lifestyle

In a report published by the journal Nature, the researchers found that 37% of the posts submitted by participants included images of thin, “perfect bodies.” These pictures were most likely to affect young women—and triggered social comparisons that led to body dissatisfaction.

Similarly, internal Facebook research from 2021 showed that 40% of teenagers in the U.S. and U.K. who felt "unattractive" started feeling this way after using Instagram. Another internal document also stated that Instagram use made body image issues worse for 33% of teenage girls (who may have already experienced similar negative feelings).

Teen girl on phone

Can Instagram positively affect body image?

This isn't to say that Instagram use is negative. Not all Instagram users will walk away from the app feeling bad about their appearance—Instagram can have a beneficial effect on self-esteem, too. The experience that your teen has can depend on the type of Instagram posts that they're exposed to.

Social development.

When you wanted to socialize with friends after school, you probably picked a place to meet—like the mall or a football game. Maybe you chatted on AIM if it was raining out or late at night.

Today’s teens do a lot of their socializing digitally on platforms like Instagram. According to the Pew Research Center, 83% of teen girls and 76% of teen boys say that social media apps like Instagram help them stay connected to friends. 

Instagram, and other social media networks, can also help to give teens a sense of community—with 58% of U.S. teens reporting that it helps them feel more accepted. (Can any of us really say the same for our time spent on MySpace, literally ranking our friends into eight-person lists of favorites?)

Creative expression.

The same Pew Research Center report also notes that 77% of teen girls and 64% of teen boys view social media as a place where they can show off their creative side. Instagram's mix of still images and video Reels makes it a great place for young social media users interested in sharing photos of their own work and learning new skills through quick tutorials. 

Body appreciation.

The 2024 Nature report found that exposure to body positive content—which can include unretouched photos or illustrations of bodies of all sizes—helped participants have better self-esteem about their bodies and abilities.

3 Ways parents can support teens on Instagram.

All in all, yes—Instagram can intensify body image issues. But with a little support, some open conversations, and time spent filling the Instagram feed with positive content, the app can become a great social and creative space. 

1. Talk about unrealistic beauty standards.

First off, it's important to talk with your teen about "Instagram vs. reality." There's a reason this phrase has become a meme—there's truly a difference between many Instagram influencers' filtered or Facetuned posts and their real, day-to-day bodies and lives. 

2. Emphasize the importance of offline relationships.

If your teen expresses that they're sad or discouraged by a lack of online followers, likes, or views, help them focus on their offline friendships and relationships. Sometimes, video calling a friend or heading out to a family event can be just the reset they need after spending a little too much time on social media. 

3. Find body-positive accounts to follow.

Instagram uses algorithms that display different streams of content to every user. The content that your teen sees is influenced, in part, by who they follow—as well as how they engage with feed posts, Reels, and Stories. 

By following Instagram accounts and interacting with posts that make them feel good, your teen can turn their Instagram feed into a place that's enjoyable, not discouraging. While they may still see heavily edited, unrealistic depictions of fitness or weight from time to time, the potential negative impact may be lessened by a feed that's mostly full of body-confident content.

4. Limit screen time and Instagram use.

Finally, whether your kids are seeing body-positive content in their feed or not, it's important to set time limits on Instagram use. The same goes for other social media accounts, too. The Mayo Clinic and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend limiting kids' screen time to 1-2 hours a day—any more, and it could interfere with their sleep, schoolwork, and exercise levels. 

That said, you know your family best. By using tools like Meta Family Center and parental control software, you can decide how much time your kids spend online—and on Instagram—every day.

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