British Columbia

Women with higher internet use report increased body dissatisfaction, study finds

Research conducted at Simon Fraser University explored the relationship between low body image and internet use.

'I was part of that statistic,' says SFU researcher Allison Carter, who pioneered the study

Fifteen per cent of women surveyed in the sample reported that they felt dissatisfied with their physical appearance. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

New research from Simon Fraser University found that Canadian women with higher rates of internet use are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies.

The study, conducted by PhD candidate Allison Carter, used data from Statistics Canada to study the internet habits of 3,000 Canadian women between the ages of 12 and 29. 

It found that women who spend 20 hours online per week outside of work and school — around 20 per cent of the sample — were three times more likely to report body dissatisfaction compared with women spending less than an hour online each week.

Overall, 15 per cent of women surveyed in the sample reported experiencing dissatisfaction with their physical appearance.

Older women were also more likely be unhappy with their bodies, with 21 per cent of women aged 25 to 29 reporting dissatisfaction, compared to less than six per cent of those under the age of 14.

'I was part of that statistic'

Carter said that while they were not able to measure the type of content women were engaging with online, past research can provide some clues.

"We know that websites and advertisements targeted to young women and girls tend to focus on idealized aspects of female beauty — fitness, makeup, health and beauty, and celebrities," she said. 

"In today's age, with the rapid rise of Facebook and Instagram, the opportunities for appearance comparisons are unprecedented."

SFU PhD candidate Allison Carter said her research was inspired in part by her own experiences. (Courtesy of Simon Fraser University/Allison Carter)

Carter said the research was, in part, inspired by her own experiences.

"I was part of that statistic. I was noticing the effects that it was having on my own self-esteem and sense of worth," she said.

Carter said that since conducting the research, she has "completely changed" the ways she engages online, by unfollowing social media accounts that trigger negative thoughts and reducing the leisure hours she spends on the internet.

'What defines female worth'

Carter said that while reducing screen time may be part of a solution, the overall conversation around women's bodies needs to change.

"We need to be talking with girls and young women about how to engage online in ways that are positive and meaningful," she said.

"I think the bigger issue that we need to be talking about is what defines female worth — we need to move beyond what appears on the outside and reclaim what defines who we are as women."

Results for men and boys differ

The research also included a sub analysis that looked at the internet use and self-image of boys and young men of the same ages. 

The Statistics Canada data found that relative to their female counterparts, men reported lower body dissatisfaction and much higher internet use.

Carter said this suggests that there may be a gendered aspect to the phenomenon.

"Certainly, more research among diverse populations across age, gender, ethnicity is needed," she said. 

Carter's research was the first nationally representative study evaluating the relationship between internet use and body dissatisfaction among girls and young women in Canada.