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Reducing social-media use leads to improved body image among young people, according to the results of a new Canadian study.

The study, published on Thursday in the journal Psychology of Popular Media, found teens and young adults felt better about their appearance and body weight after they cut their use of social media by 50 per cent for three weeks.

“In a nutshell, when it comes to social-media use among teens, less is more,” said Gary Goldfield, a senior scientist at Ottawa’s CHEO Research Institute for pediatric research, who led the study.

More than 80 per cent of young people in Canada spend more than two hours a day using social media, Dr. Goldfield said. The participants of their study were using it for nearly three hours a day, which is generally considered excessive, he said.

While trying to eliminate social-media use is not a realistic or viable solution, their research highlights that moderation should be the goal, Dr. Goldfield said.

The study examined 220 university undergraduate students, ages 17 to 25, who regularly used social media on their smartphones and had symptoms of depression or anxiety. During the first week, the participants were instructed to use social media as usual. Half of them were then instructed to limit their social-media use to an hour a day for the next three weeks, while those in the control group were not.

During the three weeks, participants in the first group reduced their social-media use by about half, to an average of 78 minutes a day, while the control group averaged 189 minutes a day. Those who reduced their social-media use showed improvements on test scores of how they regarded their appearance and body weight. The control group showed no significant changes. The researchers did not find significant differences between genders.

While they did not examine the potential reasons for this effect, the researchers suggested limiting social-media use may reduce people’s engagement in unfavourable comparisons and exposure to unattainable beauty standards, leading to a healthier body image.

Given that body dissatisfaction is a strong predictor of eating disorders, substance use and other mental disorders among young people, Dr. Goldfield said their findings suggest reducing social-media use could be a helpful component in treating and preventing body image and eating-related issues in high-risk groups, such as young people with emotional distress.

Media in general, not just social media, have an impact on the attitudes that young people and children, as young as 3, develop toward their bodies, said Kara Brisson-Boivin, director of research at the non-profit media literacy organization MediaSmarts, who was not involved in the study.

But social media and other platforms that use algorithms to recommend content, such as video-sharing sites, play a unique role in terms of the environments they create and the control users have over what they see, Dr. Brisson-Boivin explained. These platforms use a combination of information about who users say they are online and what they do online to recommend content, which for teens, can include messages around body types and what it means to be beautiful, she said.

“Our capacity to communicate with an algorithm when we find that content to be problematic is limited,” she said.

It’s important for parents to talk to their children, starting from as early in life as possible, about gender, body stereotypes and body image, to view media together when they’re young, and to remind them that the content they see on social platforms is created by people with motivations, typically to advertise to them, and is often highly produced and edited, she said.

“The kinds of content they are seeing on TikTok and Instagram many times, if not more often than not, is just as curated and designed as a Hollywood film,” she said.

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