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Durham University

Durham University News


Can women curate their social media feed to protect mental health?

(20 May 2021)

Woman on mobile phone

Hester Hockin-Boyers (PhD student in Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences & Department of Sociology), Dr. Stacey Pope (Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences) and Dr. Kimberly Jamie from our Department of Sociology discuss the impact of social media on women’s mental health.

Social media plays a big role in modern life. One recent survey found that the average UK adult spends 102 minutes daily on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. However, in academic and popular discourse, social media use is understood to have negative consequences for body image and self-esteem, particularly among women and young people.

Body image research in this area has explored the impact of thinspiration (images that promote the thin ideal) and fitspiration (images that promote the fit ideal) content on women’s wellbeing and 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, little work has considered the agency individuals possess to curate their social media feed through everyday acts (such as following/unfollowing/muting).

In our recently published research, we examined how a group who are perceived as particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social media (female weightlifters in recovery from eating disorders) navigate digital environments. Based on a host of intensive interviews, we found that most women reported to regularly observe thin ideal 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 views women as ‘vulnerable’ to this kind of social media messaging, our study found that women develop experience-informed strategies to sift through harmful online content and create healthy digital environments.

‘Digital Pruning’

The women interviewed spoke about taking personal responsibility for the content they follow and the messages they absorb. We coined the term ‘digital pruning’ to capture this process of unfollowing unhelpful or triggering content in the interests of wellbeing. Importantly, this is a long-term process which requires diligence and consistent upkeep. 

To fully illustrate this metaphor- in order to cultivate a beautiful and healthy garden, one must regularly ‘weed out’ what does not serve this overall project. In the words of one participant in our study,

Instagram is your personal magazine, and you curate your own magazine. And I try and do that with it. So I try and make sure that it’s, like, a healthy place for me to be, instead of somewhere where there’s like loads of people calorie counting and being like, “this is what’s in my food” or “this is my 4 hour workout.

The language of digital pruning is also regularly observable within wellness spaces on social media, as users encourage their followers to ‘delete accounts that don’t nourish you’. In this way, digital pruning is framed as an act of self-care, and is advocated for alongside other strategies reported to improve wellbeing such as regular exercise and time in nature.

Content regulation on social media: whose responsibility?

The concept of digital pruning, we believe, opens up an interesting discussion for thinking about who is expected to take responsibility for harmful or triggering content online.

Digital pruning is labour-intensive; it requires self-knowledge and an awareness of one’s personal triggers. However, women do not necessarily all have equal access to the skills or emotional energy that are required to successfully engage in digital pruning as a practice. In this way, while the women in this study effectively managed their social media feeds, this may not be possible for all populations.

To combat inequalities in people’s ability to critically engage with online content, body image researchers have done a great deal of work around developing media-literacy interventions. These interventions aim 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 idea that we need to make women more resilient to harmful media content surely absolves platforms, advertisers, and those with the greatest influence from accountability.

In many ways, digital pruning and the underlying emphasis on personal choice, may be preventing us from taking collective action to make online environments safer. By digital pruning, users are ‘looking out for themselves’ instead of challenging harmful or sexist messaging as and when they encounter it. As a result, some of the more problematic content on social media (for example, the promotion of diet culture) may continue to grow.

What our research makes clear is that we need to move away from stereotypes of women as passive victims of social media. Our findings show that some women are taking personal responsibility for what they consume and produce on online and are successfully creating healthy and supportive social media feeds as a result. However, there is also an urgent need for more communally minded approaches to making online spaces safe, such as embedding feminist principles within content regulation policy.

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