This article was written by Registered Nutritionist and Dietetically Speaking intern Sophie Gastman and reviewed by Registered Dietitian Maeve Hanan.
The start of the pandemic back in March 2020 led us to lean on technology more than ever before. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and social media platforms, like Tik Tok, which rocketed to fame during lockdown, suddenly became essential apps on all of our devices. However, whilst these apps have helped us to maintain relationships and facilitated us in working from home, they have equally caused a lot of issues in relation to mental health; including how we see ourselves and how we feel about our appearance.
From Zoom meetings to online lectures and Facetiming with friends, we have been confronted with our own faces for the best part of 18 months. This has caused many of us to shift from focusing on someone else’s face and body language to hyper analysing our own.
On top of this, the additional ability to control our appearance online by using filters, specific camera angles and lighting means we are only presented with or are presenting a particular snapshot and edited image. This can result in harmful comparisons and also creates a lot of anxiety around our own appearance when returning to ‘real life’.
This article summarises the US study ‘Life After Lockdown: Zooming Out on Perceptions in the Post Videoconferencing Era’, which explores the ways the pandemic has impacted self-perception and mental health as the world reopens.
What Did the Study Involve?
A voluntary anonymous survey was distributed online in the United States. The main focus of the survey was how video-conferencing, social media and the use of filters influenced changes in self-perception, mental health and anxiety after returning to in-person activities.
The development of the survey involved college and graduate school-age students who were able to identify relevant questions. These students then posted the survey via their social media platforms and various student network pages.
What Did The Study Find?
The survey returned 7295 responses, with the main demographic being 25-34, white, male and female college students. The gender ratio was fairly even with 49.6% males and 44.3% females.
Out of the 82% of participants who had returned to in-person activities, almost ¾ reported experiencing anxiety on this return and 64% sought mental health services. The leading concern about returning to in-person activities in relation to appearance was weight gain, with almost 40% of respondents stating this was an issue.
Nearly 30% of the entire cohort expressed a desire to invest in their appearance and over ⅓ of participants planned to take action in changing their appearance as a way of coping with this anxiety.
A UK based study on body image and eating habits conducted during the pandemic acknowledges these findings as they discovered increasing struggles with regulating eating and worsening body image (2).
The study also demonstrated how the use of filters on social media or during video conferencing can be damaging to mental health.
Over 70% of participants admitted to using filters, which highlights our huge desire as a population to alter our appearances and maintain aesthetic and unrealistic features, such as smooth skin.
Within 18 to 24-year-olds, those who used filters felt higher levels of anxiety about returning to in-person activities compared to those who didn’t. Filter use was also one of the main contributing factors that lead to 18 to 24-year-olds wanting to change their appearance.
Another issue flagged in this age group relating to anxiety on return to in-person activities was total time spent on social media. The results demonstrated that increased time spent on social media resulted in worsening anxiety, self-scrutiny and increased use of mental health services. Over half (51%) of those who spent 20+ hours on social media a week experienced worsening self-perception compared to 40% of those who spent only 0-10 hours per week.
Whilst the abilities of technology have been a godsend in terms of keeping us connected, it also comes with a lot of drawbacks. Our huge reliance on technology during this time has made it increasingly difficult and anxiety-inducing when it comes to leaving the virtual world behind.
This study demonstrates how certain behaviours and activities that were adopted by many during the pandemic, such as using filters, may make some individuals experience increased stress, anxiety and worsening self-perception. From the results of this study, it is also apparent that the mental health of 18 to 24-year-olds in particular, is strongly impacted by these unhelpful virtual behaviours.
Negative body image is something that has plagued the nation for a long time, but it is clear the pandemic has played a big role in worsening people’s perceptions of themselves. It is important to have an awareness of this and really focus on developing a better relationship with these apps and yourself.
- Hiding self-view on video conferencing apps like Zoom and Teams.
- Cleaning up your social media so that you only follow accounts that make you feel good, including unfollowing accounts that focus heavily on appearance or unrealistic beauty ideals.
- Limiting your time on social media or taking a break from this.
- Not using filters or editing images of yourself.
- Focusing on what you appreciate about your body.
- Practicing self-compassion.
- Engaging in mindful movement that is enjoyable rather than focusing on how you look.
For those struggling with an eating disorder or severe negative body image, professional help is the best way forward, speaking with your GP is often the best first step to take. If you feel you are struggling with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) you can find more information here or access the BDD Foundation’s support services here.
- Silence, C., Rice, S., Pollock, S., Lubov, J., Oyesiku, L., Ganeshram, S., Mendez, A., Feeney, F. and Kourosh, A., 2021. Life After Lockdown: Zooming Out on Perceptions in the Post-Videoconferencing Era. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology,.
- Robertson, M., Duffy, F., Newman, E., Prieto Bravo, C., Ates, H. and Sharpe, H., 2021. Exploring changes in body image, eating and exercise during the COVID-19 lockdown: A UK survey. Appetite, 159, p.105062.