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WASHINGTON — Ditching social media can “significantly” improve a teenager’s body image, a new study explains. Researchers working with the American Psychological Association say both teens and young adults feel far better about their weight and looks when they cut their screen time in half for just three weeks. Regardless of gender, the team says the rapid intervention brings significant improvements in distressed youth who excessively scroll through their mobile devices.

Apps and social media platforms are home to more and more fashion and fitness influencers, pushing vulnerable kids to internalize often-unattainable beauty ideals. Already, adolescents are more likely to struggle with self-esteem, mental illness, and eating disorders.

As a result, a team from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute recommends time off of social apps as one treatment for body-image issues. Scientists report young people are spending six to eight hours a day looking at screens, on average.

“Adolescence is a vulnerable period for the development of body image issues, eating disorders and mental illness,” says lead author Gary Goldfield, PhD, of Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, in a media release.

“Youth are spending, on average, between six to eight hours per day on screens, much of it on social media. Social media can expose users to hundreds or even thousands of images and photos every day, including those of celebrities and fashion or fitness models, which we know leads to an internalization of beauty ideals that are unattainable for almost everyone, resulting in greater dissatisfaction with body weight and shape.”

woman looking in mirror
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Cutting social media use to an hour a day leads to better mental health

Researchers studied 220 undergraduate students between 17 and 25 years-old, selecting those who use their phones at least two hours a day, and who also show symptoms of depression or anxiety. Females made up 76 percent of the group, with 23 percent being men and one percent identifying as “other.”

Participants ranked how they felt about their looks and body on a five-point scale. Each person gave answers ranging from “never” to “always” to questions such as “I’m pretty happy about the way I look” and “I am satisfied with my weight.”

For the first week, they used social media as usual. Every day they took a screenshot of a screentime tracker counting their hours in the background. After the first week, half the group had to halve their social media use to no more than 60 minutes a day. For the next three weeks, those who cut their social media use reduced to an average of 78 minutes a day.

Meanwhile, the control group averaged 188 minutes spent chatting and scrolling on social apps each. Those avoiding screens reaped the benefits, but nothing changed for the control group.

The scientists want to follow up on this study, published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media, with a large investigation into whether people can reduce their social media use for a sustained period of time, and if this can bring even more psychological rewards.

“Our brief, four-week intervention using screentime trackers showed that reducing social media use yielded significant improvements in appearance and weight esteem in distressed youth with heavy social media use,” Goldfield continues.

“Reducing social media use is a feasible method of producing a short-term positive effect on body image among a vulnerable population of users and should be evaluated as a potential component in the treatment of body-image-related disturbances.”

South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.

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