The effect of exposure to “social media vs. reality” content on female adults’ body appreciation Zhiying Liu

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The effect of exposure to “social media vs. reality” content on female adults’ body appreciation

Zhiying Liu

Master’s Thesis

Graduate School of Communication

MSc Communication Science: Entertainment Communication

Student ID: 13094041

Supervisor: Ewa Międzobrodzka Word count: 5728 (29 pages) Date of completion: 04.02.2022



Exposure to unrealistic social media content may negatively affect body image. However, viewing “social media vs. reality” content, combining unrealistic and real content, may positively affect body image, which was found for Instagram posts. This study tested whether a similar “social media vs. reality” effect on body appreciation may also be observed for TikTok videos, including the medium type (picture vs. video) and Body Max Index (BMI) as moderators. In a mixed-design online experiment, female adults (N = 268) were randomly assigned to view one of four types of content; 1) “unrealistic social media” pictures; 2)

“unrealistic social media” videos; 3) “social media vs. reality” pictures; or 4) “social media vs. reality” videos. Body appreciation was measured before and after exposure. As expected, result indicated an increased body appreciation after exposure to “social media vs. reality”

content. However, we did not find a moderating effect of the medium type (picture vs. video) or the BMI level. These findings suggest that exposure to “social media vs. reality” is a successful way to temporarily increase body appreciation, regardless of the posts medium type or participants’ BMI level.

Keywords: body image, body appreciation, social media vs. reality, BMI, Instagram, TikTok



The dissemination of body image-related information is abundantly present in social media. Pictures of fashion models, smooth skin, or perfect curvy body - they all influence viewers’ opinions on their body image. Sometimes, these pictures are edited and not even real, which present an “unrealistic” body image. The theory on the effects of social media and body image explains that exposure to social media evokes thinness ideals and body

dissatisfaction (Perloff, 2014). More recently, researchers investigated effects of exposure to various types of social media posts, such as posts with perfect photos and a caption “edited”, and posts with perfect photos and comments explaining how they were photoshopped (cf.

Davies et al., 2020; Tiggemann & Anderberg, 2019). A special attention received “Instagram vs reality” posts, which display an original photo and the edited one together. Studies on

“Instagram vs reality” posts showed that viewing more realistic photos on Instagram had a positive impact on body image; it evoked less concerns about appearance (Tiggemann &

Anderberg, 2020).

As of October 2021, with 1393 million users, Instagram is the most popular picture- based social media platform (Statista, 2022); globally, 62.2% Instagram users are below 35 years old, and 44.9% of them are female (Statista, 2021). However, Instagram is not the only social media platform where people share “social media vs. reality” content that may

potentially affect body image of other users. Until now, still very little is known whether a similar effect could be observed for other social media platforms and other media formats, such as videos. Therefore, the current study addresses this research gap and investigates whether such effect may depend on a medium type. Building on the research of Tiggemann and Anderberg (2020), the current study will investigate an impact of similar content on body image, but also in a form of TikTok videos.


Over the past few years, short video platforms, such as TikTok, became very popular among teenagers and young adults. From 2019 to March 2021, TikTok noted a 38% growth of monthly active users, which is the highest among all social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.). Also, 47.4% of TikTok users in the US are under 29 years old and 62% of them are female (Statista, 2021). For that reason, the current study focused only on females.

Furthermore, considering that the effect might also depend on individual differences which may be important for body image (Swami, Hadji-Michael & Furnham, 2008), Body Mass Index (BMI) is included as a potential moderator of the expected “social media vs.

reality” effect. Finally, unlike most body image related literature investigating the negative influence such as body-dissatisfaction, this study will implement a positive perspective of body appreciation on body image (Jarman et al., 2021), which leads to the following research questions:

RQ1. To what extent does exposure to “social media vs. reality” content, as

compared with exposure to “unrealistic social media” content, affect change in body appreciation of female adults?

RQ2. To what extent does the medium type (picture vs. video) and BMI level affect the

“social media vs. reality” effect on body appreciation?

Social and Scientific Relevance

Answering these research questions may be relevant for a few reasons. First of all, the effects of social media on body appreciation have raised a lot of attention during the past years. Exposure to unrealistic social media content, for example, thin body ideal is in general related to lower body satisfaction (Alleva, Veldhuis & Martijn, 2016). Also, it has been found that manipulated Instagram photos, when compared with original photos, have higher

negative effect on teenage girls, especially for those who have higher social comparison


tendencies (Kleemans et al., 2018). This effect came to public attention when recently, a leaked internal document from Facebook uncovered that Facebook has been aware of the negative influence of its product on female users’ opinions about their self-body appreciation, especially teenagers and emerging adults (Paul & Milmo, 2021).

If social media exposure may have such a negative effect, it is important to find ways to counterbalance or fight it; one of the promising ways is the researched “social media vs.

reality” effect in the current study. As proved in previous research, the “Instagram vs.

Reality” content may have a positive influence on body appreciation (Tiggemann &

Anderberg, 2020). Although we know a lot about possible effects of exposure to images on social media sites (SNSs) like Instagram on body image (Ryding & Kuss, 2020), the prevalence of TikTok opened a new avenue to research this effect also with a short social media video format. The new way of conveying short video messages via TikTok is experiencing an evolution, and yet there is not much research about possible effects of

exposure to TikTok videos on body image. It is likely that the valence of social media content affecting body appreciation varies from different forms of media such as pictures and videos.

Theoretical framework

Effects of “unrealistic social media” and “social media vs. reality” content (IV) on body appreciation (DV)

Posting edited, unrealistic photos of perfect bodies on social media has become so prevalent that there appeared trends like “Instagram vs. reality” to inform people about the possibility of fake pictures on social media. In this study, “unrealistic social media” content refers to pictures of content creators that look very differently from what they look like in real life, no matter the “unrealistic” part is achieved by doing makeup, finding specific poses, and shooting angels, or using Photoshop and filters (Chua & Chang, 2016). Accordingly,

“social media vs. reality” content refers to the specific type of posts that combine the


“unrealistic” side and the “reality” side of the content creator in one social media post. Thus, the current study will use content type as a between-participants manipulation.

“Body image” is an umbrella term, which could be defined as subjective thoughts and feelings experienced in relation to one’s appearance (Grogan, 2016). This study focuses on body appreciation (the dependent variable) as an aspect of body image that primarily reflects how appreciative one is towards their own appearance (Perloff, 2014). The body appreciation may be affected by different factors such as appearance comparison and thin-ideal opinion (Swami, Hadji-Michael & Furnham, 2008). Appearance comparison mainly focuses on peer- pressure that is caused by the beauty ideal image (Jarman et al., 2021). Although research about body image has focused on the relationship between social media and body

dissatisfaction, since most of them were investigating negative effect of social media, this study refers to body appreciation for consistency with the aim of investigating a possible positive influence of social media.

Until now, not many studies explored the effects of “social media vs. reality” content on body image, but few experimental researches investigated the comparison between being exposed to Instagram posts of edited photos and un-edited photos (Kleemans et al., 2018;

Fardouly & Holland, 2018; Fardouly & Rapee, 2019), all of which found that viewing idealized pictures on social media had a negative influence on body image when comparing with viewing realistic pictures. Based on social comparison theory, individuals learn to define themselves in one domain by comparing with others (Festinger, 1954). Upward comparison occurs when people compare themselves to better-off individuals, and downward comparison refers to the situation when people compare themselves to those who are worse off

themselves in order to feel better (Wills, 1981). Viewing edited pictures is clearly an example of upward comparison, however, viewing un-edited photos can be considered as a form of downward comparison that might have a positive effect on individuals’ body image. Thus, it


is expected that the edited pictures would prime an idealized beauty standard, which derives from real life, but people might still believe it since there is no disclaimer as reminder. As an upward comparison, viewing edited unrealistic photos will lead to a negative effect on body appreciation. In contrast, by placing “unrealistic” and “reality” content together in one post,

“social media vs. reality” content could potentially help people realize that the perfect pictures on social media do not represent reality, which eventually would lead to a positive effect on their body appreciation. Thus, the following hypotheses regarding the relationship between these two different content types and body appreciation are formed:

H1. Exposure to social media posts would affect body appreciation before vs. after exposure.

H1a. Exposure to “unrealistic social media” content would lead to lower body appreciation as compared with before exposure.

H1b. Exposure to “social media vs. reality” content would lead to higher body appreciation as compared with before exposure.

H2. Exposure to “social media vs. reality” content would lead to higher body appreciation as compared with exposure to “unrealistic social media” content.

Medium type (moderator)

The “social media vs. reality” content first became popular on Instagram, which is the most commonly used picture-based social media platform, with the specific hashtag:

#instagramvsreality (Grindell, 2020). Since videos are in general more difficult to manipulate or edit, when edited (unrealistic) and unedited (realistic) content became popular on TikTok videos, it was marked with a different hashtag: #socialmediaisfake.

Exemplification theory stated that informative and persuasive elements prevail in media presentations (Zillmann, 1999). Although both media serve as exemplars, videos are more effective in engagement when comparing to pictures since they have more entertaining


and sensational qualities. According to an experiment by Perrault (2018), video healthcare provider biographies are more effective in engaging prospective patients to consult than picture biographies, which leads to the following hypothesis:

H3. The medium form (picture vs. video) will moderate the “social media vs. reality”

effect on body appreciation. Participants after exposure to videos will have a higher level of body appreciation than those after exposure to pictures.

BMI (moderator)

Body mass index (BMI) is a measure of body fat based on height and weight that applies to adult men and women. The BMI categories vary depends on gender, for example for females these are: underweight ( <18.5), normal (18.5-25) and overweight ( >25) (World Health Organization, 2005).

According to a study conducted by Hsu, Hung and Antoine (2021), individuals with under-normal BMI, and above-normal BMIs internalized the socially preferred beauty standards more than those with normal BMIs. Thus, it can be expected that the influence of

“social media vs. reality” content might affect people in different BMI groups accordingly, forming a U-shaped relationship. For instance, people who have normal BMI might be more positive about their own body, and potentially have a high body appreciation, on whom the influence might be little. On the contrary, people who are underweight and overweight, based on their BMI, may have more negative perception of their own body. Thus, “social media vs.

reality” content might have a bigger influence on such people than those who have normal BMI. Vice versa, for “unrealistic social media” content, the effect of decreasing body appreciation might also be more obvious for people who are underweight and overweight, comparing to those who have normal BMI. Based on that, the following hypothesis was formulated:


H4. The BMI index will moderate the effect of social media content on body appreciation. Participants with very high and very low BMI would be more affected by the exposure to social media exposure manipulation than participants with an average BMI level.

H4a: Exposure to “unrealistic social media” content will lead to lower body

appreciation for participants with very low and very high BMI, as compared to those with normal BMI level.

H4b: Exposure to “social media vs reality” content will lead to higher body

appreciation for participants with very low and very high BMI, as compared to those with normal BMI level.

Social media sites (SNSs) use, age and ethnicity (control variables)

Social media sites (SNSs) use might have a potential effect on the main effect of manipulation since people who use social media more frequently would be more familiar with the norm and format of different ways to convey social media message. However, people who use social media less frequently might react more strongly to the content, especially when they are exposed to fast-paced and intense short videos on TikTok. Since passive SNSs use could be detrimental to subjective well-being (Wang et al., 2018), it is possible that higher SNSs exposure might also lead to a negative effect on body appreciation.

Therefore, this study will control for a general SNS use, especially of the two platforms of interest: Instagram and TikTok.

Age is an important aspect to be considered as control variable because the existing body appreciation itself increases as females grow older (Tiggemann & McCourt, 2013). This suggest that older females would potentially experience a smaller increase of body

appreciation after exposure to “social media vs. reality” content, when comparing with younger females.


Ethnicity might also affect the effect of the social media content manipulation on the body appreciation since beauty standards differ in various ethnical backgrounds (Winter et al., 2019). This could be important because the experimental stimuli present only Caucasian females. In case of ethical diversity of the current sample (when at least 50 participants are not Caucasian), ethnicity would be included as another control variable.

Conceptual model

Taken together, this study aims to investigate the effects of “social media vs. reality”

content on body appreciation, and whether it is moderated by the medium type and the Body Mass Index (BMI). The conceptual model of this study is presented in the Figure 1.

H1(H1a-, H1b+), H2+

H3 + H4 (U-shaped)

Figure 1. Conceptual model

Method Participants

In this study, the number of people participated is N = 268 (age M = 20.72; SD = 2.19;

98.9% females; 68.3% Caucasian). A minimal sample size was estimated to N = 200 (n = 50 per between-participants condition) participants, considering the current study mixed design (2x2 between x2 within factors), and based on a similar study by Tiggemann and Anderberg (2020). The inclusion criteria were: 1) female gender; 2) age of 18 and older; 3) daily use Instagram and/or TikTok; 4) correctly answered 3 out of 5 attention check questions.

Participants were recruited based on a combination of convenience sampling and snowball sampling via social media as well as via posting on relevant social media group chats (e.g.

Medium type picture (0) vs. video (1)

Body appreciation (difference of after and before exposure)

“Unrealistic social media” exposure (0) vs.

“Social media vs. reality” exposure (1)



Facebook and WhatsApp). Participants recruited this way (n = 19) were not rewarded for their participation. However, participant who were recruited via the UvA lab recruitment pool (n = 249), were rewarded with 0.5 research credit points. The study was approved by the ethical committee (2021-YME-14212, approved on 02-12-2021). Moreover, this study’s hypotheses, method and analyses were preregistered at AsPredicted:


This experiment was performed in a 2x2x2 mixed-model design, with one within- subject factor and two between-subject factors. The within-subject factor was the difference of body appreciation after exposure (pre-exposure vs. post-exposure). The first between- subject factor was social media content type (“unrealistic social media” and “social media vs.

reality” content); and the second between-subject factor was the medium type (picture vs.

video). The experiment was conducted by randomly assigning participants into four conditions: 1) “unrealistic social media” content in pictures; 2) “unrealistic social media”

content in videos; 3) “social media vs. reality” content in pictures; and 4) “social media vs.

reality” content in videos. The BMI level is included as a second moderator of the

relationship between exposure to “social media vs reality” content and body appreciation.

The decision about whether using BMI as a continuous or dichotomous moderator was made post-hoc, upon exploration of its distribution.


Participants received a link to the online study in Qualtrics. After reading an introduction, an informed consent, and agreeing to participate, the experimental procedure started. Firstly, demographic information, BMI, together with answers for control variables general SNSs usage, age and ethnicity were collected. Secondly, pre-exposure body

appreciation was be measured. Then, participants were randomly assigned to one of the four


conditions and exposed to either picture or video form of “unrealistic social media” or “social media vs. reality” content. Each of the conditions involved viewing 15 social media posts of female content creators. Each stimulus was presented for 15 seconds. Stimuli across 4 different conditions were presented the same 15 content creators (one person per stimuli).

During exposure, an attention check was conducted when participants viewed every 3rd post, with 5 attention checks questions in total. Next, post-exposure measurement of body

appreciation took place. Finally, participants were thanked and debriefed. The whole procedure took approximately 10 to 12 minutes.

Stimulus Materials

For each condition, the stimulus materials consisted of either 15 TikTok videos or 15 mock Instagram posts. The Instagram posts were created by making screenshots of the TikTok videos, thus the stimuli in video vs picture conditions presented the same 15 people.

The TikTok videos were selected by searching “#socialmediaisfake”, and considering the number of views and video quality.

While displaying to the participants in the final experiment, the layout of Instagram and TikTok was used since these are the most popular picture-based and video-based social media, and also perfectly simulated the typical situation of scrolling through social media.

For the picture form conditions, one group was exposed to 15 Instagram posts that each contained only “before” screenshots from the TikTok videos with captions “#ootd #style # fashion”; the other group was exposed to 15 Instagram posts that each contained both

“unrealistic” and “reality” screenshots from the videos, with captions “#instagramvsreality,


#socialmediaisfake”. Below are presented two examples of Instagram pictures from the two conditions:

Figure 2A.“unrealistic social media” Instagram post Figure 2B.“social media vs. reality” Instagram post

For the video condition, one group was exposed to 15 videos selected from

#socialmediaisfake on TikTok. These videos consist of two parts: the first part displays the edited part which is often achieved by using a filter, finding a specific angle or adjusting lighting while recording. Then, in the second part of the video, a female voice says: “this is your daily reminder that social media is fake”, while several fast-paced short clips of body imperfections such as scars, cellulite, and other real characteristics of a content creator (without editing) are displayed. The other group was exposed to 15 videos selected from the same TikTokers’ account with only edited “unrealistic” content.


Below are included screenshots and links to two example videos from the two conditions:

Figure 3A. “unrealistic social media” TikTok post link Figure 3B. “social media vs. reality” TikTok post link

Attention check

After participants were exposed to every three Instagram posts or TikTok videos, a question related to the stimuli content was asked to check if participants paid attention during exposure. For example: “In the post you just saw, what kind of hair did she have?”. In total, attention checks were asked, one after every three pictures or videos. Based on the pre- registration, participants who answered more than three attention checks wrongly were excluded from the analysis.


Body appreciation

The dependent variable was the difference (before vs. after exposure) in body

appreciation measured on a scale from 1 (never) to 5 (always) with 10-items by Alleva et al.

(2016). Higher scores on this scale indicated higher body appreciation. Participants were asked to what extent do they agree with the following statements about themselves, and with an emphasis of state at the beginning of the question, such as “at the moment” “after viewing these posts” to ensure the scale was measuring state instead of trait. Item example: ‘I respect


my body’. The scale resulted in a very good reliability level for both measurements (𝛼before = 0.92, 𝛼after = 0.94).


Since BMI index is calculated as body mass divided by the square of the body height, and is expressed in units of kg/m2, resulting from mass in kilograms and height in meters, participants were asked to report their body weight (kg) and height (cm). Whether BMI would be used as a continuous or categorical variable for analyses was assessed post-hoc, upon inspection of distribution of the data. In case of insufficient number of participants to create BMI groups (categorical variable), it will be treated as a continuous variable.

SNSs usage, age and ethnicity

Participants were asked which social media platforms they use daily, specifically Instagram and TikTok (0 = Neither, 1 = Instagram, 2 = TikTok, 3 = Both). If they used at least one platform, they were asked to report the average hours they spend on the relevant social media platform per weekday and weekend day. Mean of the SNSs usage was calculated for analyses.

As potential control variables, participants were also asked to report their age (continuous variable) and ethnicity (categorical variable).

Analyses plan

For preliminary analyses, descriptive statistics of the independent variable, the dependent variable and the control variables were provided.

To test H1, H2, H3, 2 (time: before vs. after exposure) x 2 (content: “unrealistic social media” vs. “social media vs. reality”) x 2 (medium: picture vs. video) mixed-model analysis of variance was carried out. BMI would be included either as continuous or categorical based on the data obtained. Moreover, to test H4, we planned either the mixed model ANOVA (as


described above) in case of using BMI as a categorical variable, or the PROCESS (model 1) in case of using BMI as a continuous variable, with the BMI as a moderator.

For exploratory analysis, (1) SNSs usage and (2) age were added separately as covariates to the same mixed-model analysis of variance. Based on descriptive statistics for ethnicity, if at least 50 participants were not Caucasian, ethnicity would also be included as a covariate.

Results Preliminary analyses

Table 1 presents descriptive statistics of the dependent variable in every condition.

Table 1

Descriptive Statistics of the Dependent Variable

Time Medium

type Content type M SD n

Body appreciation before picture unrealistic social media 3.39 0.73 69 social media vs. reality 3.65 0.71 68

Total 3.53 0.73 137

video unrealistic social media 3.59 0.71 67

social media vs. reality 3.53 0.74 64

Total 3.56 0.73 131

Total unrealistic social media 3.49 0.73 136

social media vs. reality 3.59 0.73 132

Total 3.54 0.73 268

Body appreciation after picture unrealistic social media 3.48 0.76 69 social media vs. reality 3.89 0.71 68

Total 3.68 0.76 137

video unrealistic social media 3.70 0.76 67

social media vs. reality 3.76 0.81 64

Total 3.73 0.78 131

Total unrealistic social media 3.59 0.77 136

social media vs. reality 3.84 0.76 132

Total 3.71 0.77 268

For BMI (M = 21.37, SD = 3.00), a frequency analysis revealed that 78.4%

participants (n = 210) were normal (18.5 ≤ BMI ≤ 25), only 11.2% participants (n = 30) were underweight (BMI < 18.5), and 10.4% participants (n = 28) were overweight (BMI >


25). Based on the histogram for BMI (see Figure 4), the distribution of the BMI was skewed.

Based on this distribution and also the criteria for BMI inclusion during pre-registration, BMI was further used for main analyses as a continuous moderator with PROCESS moderation (model 1).

Descriptive statistics for covariates, SNSs usage (M = 4.42, SD = 6.19) and age (M = 20.72, SD = 2.19) were also obtained.

Figure 4. Histogram for BMI distribution

Analyses testing

For H1, H2 and H3, a 2 (time: before vs. after exposure) x 2 (content type:

“unrealistic social media” vs. “social media vs. reality”) x 2 (medium type: picture vs. video) mixed-model analysis of variance was carried out, to assess the influence of exposure to two types of social media content, in conjunction with the effect of medium type, on body appreciation.

A significant but small main effect of Time – change in body appreciation before vs.

after exposure to social media content was found (F (1, 264) = 60.46, p < .001, 𝜂2 = 0.19), which suggested that participants had higher body appreciation after exposure (Mafter = 3.71,


SEafter = 0.05) compared to before exposure (Mbefore = 3.54, SEbefore = 0.04), which supported H1.

To further test H1a and H1b, the interaction effect between Time x Content was examined, which was significant but very small (F (1, 264) = 10.48, p = .001, 𝜂2 = 0.04).

More specifically, the exploration of Pairwise Comparisons with Bonferroni correction indicated an increase both for the “unrealistic social media” content type from pre-exposure (M = 3.49, SE = 0.06) to post-exposure condition (M = 3.59, SE = 0.07; p = .001, 95% CI [0.04, 0.16]), and also for the “social media vs. reality” content type from pre-exposure (M = 3.59, SE = 0.06) to post-exposure condition (M = 3.82, SE = 0.07; p < .001, 95% CI [0.18, 0.30]). This was not in line with the H1a, but supported the H1b, respectively.

The Time x Content interaction was further used to test the H2, comparing the body appreciation level between the two content type conditions, after the exposure. In line with the expectations, exposure to “social media vs. reality” content led to significantly higher body appreciation (M = 3.83, SE = 0.76) than exposure to “unrealistic social media” content (M = 3.59, SE = 0.77; p = .012, 95% CI [0.05,0.42]). Thus, H2 was also supported.

Further, we did not find a significant Time x Content x Medium interaction effect among the subjects exposed to different medium types (F (1, 264) = 1.02, p = .313, η2 = 0.004), which indicated that whether the post was in picture or video format did not affect the relationship between exposure to “social media vs. reality” content and body appreciation.

Therefore, H3 is rejected.

To test the moderation of the BMI, a PROCESS moderation (model 1) analysis was carried out, which found a significant model (F (3, 264) = 4.25, p < .006, R2 = .05), including content type as a predictor, body appreciation difference as a dependent variable, and BMI as a moderator. The body appreciation difference was computed by using body appreciation after exposure, minus body appreciation before exposure, thus positive values indicated


increase of body appreciation after exposure. The BMI levels were created based on -1 SD, M and +1 SD approach. The interaction effect Content x BMI was not significant (b = 0.02, t (264) = 1.07, p = .287, 95% CI [-0.01, 0.04]), which suggested that BMI did not moderate the relationship, thus H4 is rejected.

Just for exploration, we further analyzed conditional effects with Johnson-Neyman procedure (which are reported in the Appendix) and plotted the results for visualization (Figure 5), which indicated a few trends. Exposure to “unrealistic social media” content seemed to lead to a decrease of body appreciation with an increase of the BMI level. Thus, the higher BMI participants had, the larger decrease of body appreciation they may

experience. However, regardless of the BMI level, exposure to “social media vs. reality”

content did not affect body appreciation.

Figure 5. Plot for Interaction Effect of Content x BMI

Exploratory analyses

For further analyses involving ethnicity, a dichotomous category of Caucasians (n = 183), and non-Caucasians (n = 85) was created, since more than 50 participants were non- Caucasians. SNSs use, age, and ethnicity were added as covariates one by one into the same

-0.3 -0.25 -0.2 -0.15 -0.1 -0.05 0

18.37 21.37 24.38



unrealistic social media social media vs. reality


mixed-model analysis of variance. Results indicated no significant effects of SNSs usage (F (1, 263) =1.19, p =.276, η2 = 0.005), age ( F(1,263) = 0.74, p = .391, η2 = 0.003) and ethnicity ( F(1, 263) =1.73, p = .190, η2 = 0.007). Thus, these control variables did not affect the main outcomes.


In line with “Instagram vs. reality” posts would result in lower body dissatisfaction (Tiggemann & Anderberg, 2020), this study proved that exposure to “social media vs.

reality” content would lead to an increase of body appreciation. However, contrary to results from previous research about exposure to “unrealistic” and “edited” posts, which would lead to lower body appreciation (Kleemans et al., 2018), this study found an increase of body appreciation in participants after exposure to not only “social media vs. reality” content, but

“unrealistic social media” content as well.

Although both content types led to an increase of body appreciation, “social media vs.

reality” content led to higher increase in body appreciation than exposure to “unrealistic social media” content, which is also in line with the research by Tiggemann and Anderberg (2020). This suggested that when it comes to bringing positive influence of social media posts on body appreciation and also mitigating negative effect on body dissatisfaction,

“social media vs. reality” content is more effective comparing with idealized posts such as

“unreal social media” content. Thus, social media should include more non-edited, or even

“social media vs. reality” content to provide more positive influence for female users.

Previous research investigating similar “unrealistic social media” content all found negative effect, although this study found a positive effect of “unrealistic social media” content, considering the almost negligible effect size (𝜂2 = 0.04), it could be just an assumption.

By including video (vs. picture) media content, this study brought new perspective to research in this field. Although posts in both medium types successfully led to an increase of


body appreciation after exposure to “social media vs. reality” content, we did not find a significant interaction effect of the medium type. From a theoretical perspective, this might suggest that although videos do provide more information than pictures (Zillmann, 1999), not all the information displayed in videos could be processed by viewers due to potential

cognitive overload (Lang, 2000). In this case, the positive effect of “social media vs. reality”

content in videos might have been weakened since participants might have been distracted by other information such as music or background surroundings.

We did not find BMI moderating the effect of exposure to different social media content on body appreciation change. Also, based on the pattern of the graph obtained (see Figure 5), even if BMI were a moderator, the specific effect would be linear instead of the U- shape as previously speculated: for participants exposed to “unrealistic social media”

content, people with higher BMI tend to have larger decrease in body appreciation; for participants exposed to “social media vs. reality” content, there is almost no effect. A speculation of the reason why there is this pattern occurring in “unrealistic social media”

content that participants with low BMI were least affected while participants with high BMI were most affected, might be because of the prevalence of thin-idea beauty standard among participants, which is in line with the research by Hsu, Hung and Antoine (2021).

None of the speculated control variables affect the main finings. However,

participants who used Instagram and TikTok very often might not be viewing content related to body image, which could be a potential reason why SNSs usage did not affect the main relationship. Moreover, we controlled for ethnicity and age because of possible different ethical backgrounds, as well as different stages of life, which may affect body ideal of participants. But no interaction effect found might indicate that the phenomenon of the change of body appreciation due to exposure to social media posts prevails among all females, regardless of ethnicity and age.


Limitations and future directions

There are several reasons why this study failed to find the moderation effect of medium type. First, the total exposure time was only about 4 minutes, which might be too short to result in a concrete influence. For future studies, we recommend conduct experiments with longer exposure time, for example over 5 minutes, because 7 minutes is close to one typical social media scrolling session (Engeln et al., 2020). Second, videos are more complex stimuli when compared to pictures, which would be easier for participants to experience cognitive overload. For future research, it is still important to further investigate the effect of videos, but maybe should keep them as simple as possible.

Due to the limitation of snowball sampling, only 21.6% participants had non-normal (either underweight or overweight) BMI level, which might not be sufficient to observe an expected moderation effect. Also, the distribution of BMI in two content types was not equal:

there were more non-normal BMI participants in “social media vs. reality” content condition (24.2%), than “unrealistic social media” content condition (19.1%), which could have further contributed to non-significant interaction with the BMI level. For future research, we suggest to include BMI as a recruitment criterion, use stratified sampling method to insure a normal distribution of BMI, and control for an equal distribution of BMI per condition.

Furthermore, due to limited resources on TikTok, the stimuli materials of this study mostly consist of female Caucasian young adults (18-25 years old), while actual participants were much more diverse in ethnicity. Future studies could be more inclusive on creating stimuli materials, and focus on Caucasians but also explore the effect on other ethnicities, since the body ideal may differ across cultures (Winter et al., 2019). Finally, this study only focused on female adults. Future studies could extend the research scope to adolescent girls, since many studies indicated that they were particularly sensitive when it comes to the negative effect of social media on body image (van der Meulen et al., 2017; Grabe, Ward &


Hyde, 2008; Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2004). It is possible that they would also react more strongly to the positive effect of “social media vs. reality” content.


This study contributes to the effects of social media content on females’ body image by suggesting that “social media vs. reality” content would increase body appreciation of female viewers regardless of picture or video medium types. “Social media vs. reality”

content in this study had a positive influence on female adults’ body appreciation, which implies that social media may not all have negative effects on body image. When proper content is created or promoted, the negative effect of social media is possible to be under control and counter-balanced. Furthermore, we improved the understanding of this positive effect from picture posts only to short videos posts, which is the first research in the field of this specific social media content. But the effectiveness or power of the medium might not lie in the amount of information it can provide, but in its efficiency of successfully delivering key information to the viewers. We also found that BMI was not a significant moderator, and from the patterns, it appeared to only matter in “unrealistic social media” content. These findings indicate that in a joint and complex way, social media content, medium type and BMI would affect body appreciation level of female adults.


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The Johnson-Neyman transition point showed that 82.09% of the significant regions were below BMI = 23.69, while only 17.91% were above it, which suggested that subjects with very low and normal BMI were more likely to be affected by this moderation effect than those who had very high BMI. Also, according to Table 2, this moderation effect was

significant below BMI smaller than 23.59 (t (264) = -1.97, p = .050, 95%CI [-0.21, 0.00]).

Participants with very low BMI were more affected by the manipulation of social media exposure than participants with an average normal BMI, while participants with very high BMI were not significantly affected.

Table 2

Results of the BMI Moderation Effect with marked Johnson-Neyman transition point.

BMI t p 95% CI

Lower Upper

15.99 -2.51 0.013 -0.39 -0.05

16.98 -2.70 0.007 -0.35 -0.06

17.97 -2.94 0.004 -0.32 -0.06

18.97 -3.19 0.002 -0.28 -0.07

19.96 -3.38 0.001 -0.25 -0.07

20.95 -3.35 0.001 -0.23 -0.06

21.95 -2.98 0.003 -0.22 -0.04

22.94 -2.37 0.018 -0.21 -0.02

23.59 -1.97 0.050 -0.21 0.00

23.94 -1.77 0.079 -0.21 0.01

24.93 -1.27 0.206 -0.21 0.05

25.92 -0.89 0.375 -0.22 0.08

26.92 -0.60 0.549 -0.23 0.12

27.91 -0.38 0.706 -0.24 0.16

28.90 -0.20 0.838 -0.25 0.20

29.90 -0.07 0.947 -0.26 0.25

30.89 0.05 0.963 -0.27 0.29

31.88 0.14 0.889 -0.29 0.33

32.88 0.22 0.828 -0.30 0.37

33.87 0.28 0.777 -0.31 0.41

34.86 0.34 0.733 -0.32 0.46

35.86 0.39 0.697 -0.33 0.50




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