Adults here at risk of body image anxiety more likely to spend 3 hours or more daily on TikTok, Instagram: Study

On average, those in Singapore aged 16 and above spend two hours and 30 minutes each day on social media. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - In spite of her job as a social media manager, Sarah (not her real name), 25, keeps notifications from her personal social media accounts permanently muted - to avoid depending on them for affirmation and triggering a relapse of her eating disorders.

Still, a simple recommendation from the platforms' algorithms can send the former ballerina and gymnast down a "rabbit hole" of stalking skinny girls for two hours before she catches herself "in time", the Singaporean told The Straits Times (ST).

Adults here who are at risk of being anxious about their body image are more likely to spend three hours or more daily on TikTok and Instagram, according to a national study published by survey firm Milieu Insight on Aug 17.

On average, those in Singapore aged 16 and above spend two hours and 30 minutes each day on social media, the survey of 2,670 people here, conducted in May and June 2022, found.

Nearly 20 per cent of adults here are potentially at risk of body image anxiety, according to Milieu Insight, which scored respondents using the Appearance Anxiety Inventory assessment scale, an established psychometric assessment in psychology.

These tend to be female and aged 16 to 24.

Those anxious about their body image were also more likely to be influenced by celebrities, particularly Korean personalities and social media influencers, the survey revealed.

This comes as the authorities are currently consulting the tech industry and the public on new codes of practice - to minimise users' risk of exposure to harmful online content - for social media platforms.

Social media is like an inspiration board, explains Sarah, who has grappled with anorexia and bulimia since she was 14.

At the peak of her anorexia, she would look to image sharing websites Pinterest and Tumblr as well as an online pro-anorexia forum that allows users to share information including calorie counts and target weights.

Hashtags - a feature that helps group related user-generated content together - created by the eating disorder community would help her find weight loss content, prolonging her condition.

Three social service agencies told ST that online platforms are a key trigger of body image anxiety among young people here, with one observing a growing number of young men with suspected eating disorders after aspiring to keep fit during the circuit breaker.

Said assistant director at Touch Mental Wellness Andrea Chan: "These males usually follow fitness instructors online before exercising obsessively and showing off photos of their body on social media. Then they start to manage their diet and it's a slippery slope from there."

She and her colleagues have handled a rising number of cases involving eating disorders and body image, with half of the 18 cases in the past four years reported last year.

"Sometimes they don't realise their condition because they start off wanting to be fit and healthy. But then they get caught up with the lifestyle such that they never look good enough to themselves," said Ms Chan, who has 10 years of counselling experience.

From this survey, it comes as no surprise to Ms Lena Teo, director of Care Singapore, that those who spend more time on TikTok and Instagram feel more anxious about their appearance, as videos and images that propagate unrealistic body types and beauty standards can evoke negative feelings among the young such as anxiety, insecurity and envy.

"More psychological education has to be done to help equip youths to deal with technology. In our parenting workshops, we've noticed a lot of parents still playing catch up on the dangers of the digital world," she said.

Social comparison has become easier as these platforms tend to recommend content that a young person repeatedly searches for, which might not be healthy, noted Mr Eric Sng, head of Shine Children and Youth Services' mental health programme ResiL!ence.

Having healthy role models to take reference from and a mentor to journey along with young people are therefore important to combat pressures from social media, said Shine social work associate Nuraidah Mohd Saleh.

Responding to ST queries, a TikTok spokesman said the platform is focused on protecting the well-being of its community by removing content, including hashtags, that promote unhealthy eating behaviours or habits that are likely to cause adverse health outcomes. It also provides access to resources and support.

"Being true to yourself is celebrated and encouraged on TikTok, and we strive to foster an inclusive and body-positive environment on the platform," she added.

Instagram parent company Meta has taken similar steps to make it harder for users to find content related to suicide, self-injury and eating disorders, according to checks by ST.

Since June, Meta has begun rolling out Nudges - a notification that encourages teenage users to switch to a different topic if they are repeatedly browsing the same type of content on the app's page that allows them to discover new content.

ST understands that Meta is working to roll out the function in Singapore soon.

Heartened to know that there are stronger protections against "bad hashtags", Sarah noted that some communities have also been a positive influence for her recovery.

"As I was trying to recover, I discovered someone who I used to follow on the pro-anorexia forum had started using recovery hashtags. That's when I discovered the recovery community. It helped because it convinced me that it was okay to eat," she said.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.