From theory to intervention: Exploring perfectionism and self-criticism in the link between social media and eating disorder risk

Author: Madelaine de Valle

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 8 Mar 2024.

de Valle, Madelaine, 2023 From theory to intervention: Exploring perfectionism and self-criticism in the link between social media and eating disorder risk, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Social media use is associated with poorer body image and disordered eating. As age groups with peak eating disorder onset and higher use of social media, adolescents and young adults are especially vulnerable. Interventions for social media, body image, and disordered eating have been developed for adolescents, yielding mixed results. The few such interventions for young adults have demonstrated little efficacy. This thesis adopts the Medical Research Council framework for developing complex interventions. It investigates causal and longitudinal associations between social media and body image, tests a model exploring the roles of perfectionism and self-criticism in explaining the association, and develops and pilot-tests an intervention for young adults.

The first two studies reviewed the literature to inform theory about impacts of social media. In the first study, experimental and longitudinal data were meta-analysed. Findings indicated that exposure to appearance-ideal social media images significantly, negatively impacts body image compared with exposure to non-appearance-related content or less ideal appearances, and this is modulated to a small extent by social media features. Longitudinally, social media use predicted a small but significant deterioration in body image. In the second study, research about the role of personality in explaining relationships between social media use and body image and disordered eating was systematically reviewed. Results revealed that few studies have examined personality variables as mechanisms in this relationship, with perfectionism one of two variables for which there was prospective evidence of involvement.

The third study evaluated models proposing perfectionism and self-criticism (an active component of perfectionism) as mediators linking social media use to disordered eating in young adults (N = 275). In the final model, appearance-related motivations for social media use were indirectly, positively associated with disordered eating via increased appearance comparison, more self-criticism, and poorer body image flexibility, sequentially. Participant perspectives indicated that social media affect body image through social comparison and exposure to appearance ideals. They suggested that negative effects could be reduced by changing the content to which they subscribe (i.e., curating their feed).

The final study pilot-tested a novel, self-guided self-criticism intervention for young adults (N = 170). A second active condition, in which participants curated their social media feed, was included as a credible comparison. Both active conditions were compared to a waitlist control condition. The active conditions were found to be feasible and acceptable. Preliminary analysis of efficacy suggested that the self-criticism intervention showed the most promise for producing changes in key risk and protective factors compared to a waitlist control.

The results of this thesis suggest that, while the current evidence is reasonably clear that social media are associated with negative effects on body image and eating, we are less well-informed on the mechanisms through which this relationship occurs. This may hamper the development of effective interventions to disrupt deleterious effects of social media use. The role of personality factors, including self-criticism and perfectionism, merits further attention. Additionally, the self-criticism intervention developed for this thesis shows promise but requires further examination of efficacy through a larger, randomised controlled trial.

Keywords: social media, social networking site, self-criticism, self-compassion, body image, appearance ideals, fitspiration, feeding and eating disorders, perfectionism, temperament, personality, pilot projects, young adult, feasibility studies, follow-up studies, meta-analysis, systematic review, literature review, theoretical model

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2023
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Prof Tracey Wade