There’s Now a Way to Measure Body Image Consciousness on Social Media

A teenager takes a selfie while lying on a bed next to a computerTo filter or not to filter? Or which filter? Most of us, and teens especially, are attuned to how they appear in photos online. But little is known about the link between social media, mental health and body image.

In order to better understand the connection, scientists need a reliable tool to measure how aware we are of our online presence. Sophia Choukas-Bradley, assistant professor of psychology in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences at Pitt, recently developed a scale for doing just that, looking specifically at how much adolescents pay attention to physical attractiveness on social media. 

“Today’s teens have grown up in a world where social media is ubiquitous,” said Choukas-Bradley, who studies how social media influences adolescent mental health. “It’s a central part of adolescents’ lives in America.”

Her latest paper, recently published in the journal Body Image, introduces the Appearance-Related Social Media Consciousness (ASMC) scale, which was developed in a series of three studies. The ASMC scale defines the extent to which a person’s thoughts and behaviors reflect awareness of whether they might look attractive to a social media audience.

Sophia Choukas-BradleyWorking with adolescent focus groups in Pittsburgh and experts from around the world, Choukas-Bradley and her team honed a 13-item scale that reliably assesses self-reported ASMC.

The team surveyed 1,227 high schoolers, with statements for them to endorse such as, “My attractiveness in pictures is more important than anything else I do on social media,” “I zoom into social media pictures to see what specific parts of my body look like” and “I look at pictures of myself on social media again and again.”

There were common themes in the data.

Even when controlling for time spent on social media, higher awareness was associated with more depressive and disordered eating symptoms. Teen girls reported higher levels of ASMC than boys. And these effects permeated into the physical world—even when not interacting on social media, adolescents reported being conscious of how attractive they might look to a social media audience.

The development of this scale contributes to a larger line of Choukas-Bradley’s work. In 2018, she published a paper on “camera-readiness,” which first introduced the concept of Appearance-Related Social Media Consciousness—an idea now being investigated by other researchers around the world. That first paper sampled a small cohort of college women. The current paper builds on those early findings and expanded the research to high schoolers.

It also contributes to a notable shift in the field of social media research, said Choukas-Bradley: An increased focus on quality, not quantity. Instead of looking at time spent on social media, researchers are finding that the overall subjective experience of a user appears to reveal more about mental health implications. Appearance-Related Social Media Consciousness “reflects a set of social media experiences that are worthy of further investigation,” Choukas-Bradley noted.

“We are now looking at ASMC over time,” she said. “We’re exploring ASMC and body image more broadly with transgender kids, too.”

Her study comes a time when human interaction has largely been limited to online spaces because of social distancing. If social media is the main vehicle we have now for staying connected to others, what might that mean for adolescent mental health and ASMC moving forward?

Anecdotally, Choukas-Bradley reports that teen girls are still putting on makeup and posing for social media selfies during this period of social distancing. Having this scale and adapting it to situations from COVID-19 to everyday life, she thinks, “is a critical step forward in understanding, and ultimately intervening, in the complex role of social media in young people’s body image”—an ever-evolving environment.