A longitudinal study among adolescents found that exposure to sexualized images on Instagram and in video games predicted increased body image concerns six months later. The study was published in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research.
In recent years, concern over the sexualization of women and girls in the media has grown. While evidence suggests that these sexualized images are harmful to adolescents’ body image, the field has neglected to study two types of media that are highly popular among today’s teenagers — Instagram and video games.
According to objectification theory, girls who are raised in a culture that sexualizes female bodies come to internalize these standards as their own, learning to equate their looks with their value. This process, called self-objectification, then translates to increased body surveillance. Study authors Marika Skowronski and her colleagues proposed that a similar process occurs when teen girls are exposed to sexualized video game characters and appearance-focused images posted by Instagram models. The researchers conducted a longitudinal study to explore this, while also investigating whether a similar self-objectification process occurs among teen boys.
Skowronski and her fellow researchers recruited 660 students from five German secondary schools. Roughly half the sample was female and the average age of the students was 15. Importantly, the study was conducted in two waves. At the start of the study, each student completed a questionnaire that assessed various appearance and body image concerns. They also answered questions concerning their exposure to sexualized images on Instagram and within video games.
Six months later, the students’ body concerns were reassessed. It was found that those who reported greater exposure to sexualized Instagram and video game content at the first assessment had a higher tendency to compare their appearance to others and placed a greater value on their appearance at the follow-up.
Moreover, both types of sexualized media were indirectly linked to increased body surveillance over time, although through different pathways. Greater exposure to sexualized video game content was linked to greater body surveillance through increased internalization of the thin-ideal, appearance comparisons, and valuing of appearance over competence. Greater exposure to sexualized Instagram content was linked to increased body surveillance through higher valuing of appearance.
These results offer strong evidence that sexualized imaging on Instagram and within video games is indeed damaging to adolescents’ body image. The study’s authors say their findings point to a process whereby sexualized media images set adolescents on a harmful path by increasing their appearance comparisons. These comparisons, in turn, encourage them to accept thin and muscular ideals that then cause them to place greater value on their appearances and become more focused on their bodies.
Interestingly, gender was not found to moderate these associations, suggesting that both girls and boys experience the same basic processes when it comes to sexualization in the media and body image concerns. Still, the researchers stress that, overall, the girls in their study still showed greater thin-ideal internalization, body surveillance, appearance concerns, and valuing of appearance compared to boys.
In light of the current findings, Skowronski and her team suggest that media literacy should be taught in schools to educate youth on how the sexualization of media can influence body image. They also say that it may be helpful for young people to follow Instagram creators that share body-positive content since such content has been found to improve body image.
The study, “Predicting Adolescents’ Self-Objectification from Sexualized Video Game and Instagram Use: A Longitudinal Study”, was authored by Marika Skowronski, Robert Busching, and Barbara Krahé.