#fitspiration: a comparison of the sport-related social media usage and its impact on body image in young adults | BMC Psychology

The study aimed to examine the relationship between the sport-related use of social media and its influence on body image. As hypothesized, most of the respondents regularly use social media to find inspiration and motivation for a sporty and healthy life. Furthermore, especially individuals engaging in athletic sports seem be more influenced by social media which in turn also correlates with less self-consciousness regarding their body image.

Social media usage of young adults

It is well known that for young adults, which comprised our set age groups, social media plays an important role [2]. Our findings illustrate the existing enthusiasm for sport (seen for example in the increasing number of people engaging in online sport classes as well as the boom of home-fitness equipment during Covid-19 pandemic [25]), which could be due to the fact that the participants mostly came from sporting institutions. Most of them are engaging in resistance training followed by endurance sport. The less done team sport could be due to current Corona pandemic and its restrictions. As half of men answered to do resistance training, it may be assumed that muscle building and strength training seems to play a greater role in young men, as the masculine ideal of beauty and body shape is oriented on a muscular body [26]. Nevertheless, in women, a little bit more than one third each engage in endurance sport and resistance training. Linked to the sample’s social media usage, this observation supports the findings of Aanesen et al. [27] and should be further investigated. In line, Mayoh and Jones [28] have recently examined in an online survey the fitness-oriented engagement of young males and females on social media. It seems as if a change could be recognized: away from the desired thin body through excessive endurance sports to a muscular, strong body through athletic sports. This change has not been comprehensively investigated by scientific studies, but a connection to the changed use of social media and the posted ideals of beauty and athletic body shape should be discussed [28, 29].

Motives for sport-related use of social media

The present study was also able to provide an informative insight into the sport-related use of social media. Given the temporal use of 2–3 h per day, our findings are in line with current research [30]. Whilst Facebook is the most popular platform worldwide [31], our respondents mainly use Instagram. This can be confirmed by a recent online survey by the greatest German television channels ARD/ZDF [32]. According whom, Instagram is the most used social network in Germany. In general, social media offer various suggestions and opportunities for the personal usage. Likewise, nearly half of participants chose the use of social media in relation to sport as prevalent usage motive. Tiggemann and Zaccardo [9] have revealed the frequent use of Instagram in relation to sport-related content. Our results showed a significant correlation between the engagement in resistance training and the motive for sport-related use of social media. Resistance training correlated also significantly with motivation and the training information motive. In line, Vaterlaus et al. [33] have identified already some years ago, that many users search for/get their motivation from sport-related posts. Overall, the profile of athletic sports offers simple but diverse possibilities for presentation on social media, e.g., short videos provide insights into the training and can represent support. Nevertheless, it is questionable to what extent the provided training information by these virtual professionals are reliable [34]. Further significant correlation could be found between resistance training and nutrition, as, beside training, nutrition is named to be one of the greatest influencing factors for successful sport performance [35]. Team sport was the only sport in our study that showed a significant correlation with the motive of social communication on social media. One reason for that could be that, beside few successful (elite) athletes in individual sports, the popularity and (digital) presence of sport teams is comparably high [36]. Notably, we could not find any correlations between the sport-related use of social media and the motive of self-staging. This finding is also in line with an earlier research by Carrotte et al. [37]. Thus, young adults mostly do not present themselves as sporty, but instead search for sport- and health-related information, social communication, as well as motivation and inspiration by fitness influencers. It can also be speculated that endurance sports are less important on social media than other forms of sport. In addition, the term endurance sport can be interpreted in many different ways, which is maybe why the respondents could not clearly assign the motives.

Taken together, the motives for sport-related use of social media mainly aim for the optimization of the body and allow the assumption that the participants may be concerned with conforming to an ideal of beauty and body shape. According to our hypotheses, especially resistance training showed a positive correlation with emulating sport-related beauty and body ideals. Most ideals of beauty and body shapes are primarily characterized by the build-up of muscles [38]. Similar results have been found in a study on the role of Instagram and Fitspiration images for muscular dysmorphic symptoms [39]. Especially the strength athletes responded to follow Fitspiration images, which in turn represent ideals of beauty and body shape. At the same time, as shown by the present study, many unconsciously know about the influence the different ideals of beauty and body shape on social media can have on one’s own body image.

Sport-related social media usage and body image

On the one hand, our results showed that participants seem to be unsecure and obviously worry about their body image. On the other hand, the influence of social media on values of the VBD could also be demonstrated. These correlations strengthen our hypothesis about the relationship between sports, media activities and the tendentially negative effects on body image. These findings of the present study are in accordance with the study of Jiotsa et al. [40] indicating that the one of the age group of 18–25 years which have a conspicuous negative body image, strive for and compare themselves with presented beauty and body ideals on social media. As described, social media is being used more and more frequently for sport alongside actual training. In line, we found a significant correlation with a weak effect referring to this in the VBD group. There was also a smaller significant correlation between the VBD group and the following of sport-related content on social media. In turn, based on small effect size, a positive body image (VBD) can even be linked to posting one’s own sport-related content. Taken together, although some persons benefit and are motivated by social media, their apparent positive inspiration is not to be equated with a stable positive body image. More than one third of participants experienced a negative influence of social media, of whom some occasionally felt poor health and social pressure. Respondents who were rather conspicuous in rejecting their body shape showed a strong correlation with dissatisfaction with one’s own body when viewing posts on social media, as well as with the perception of social pressure when striving for perfect body image on social media. This supports the findings by Tiggemann and Zaccardo [41] as well as Raggatt et al. [42] who examined the initial decrease in body satisfaction and the emergence of social pressure. Not just the use of social media, but also the preoccupation with the perfect body has become part of the everyday life of many users [7]. The emulation of certain ideals of beauty and body shape is not a phenomenon of the digital age, but has always been present [43, 44]. The ideal conceptions classified by society are increasingly difficult to achieve, and thus, pose more risks for physical and mental health [45, 46]. If social media continues to be a platform for such risks, there is a need for educational advertising.

Taken together, although the current literature supports the assumption of both positive and negative effects of social media usage/content on young people, further research is needed to broaden the evidence. In our study, we were able to show that especially the engagement in athletic sports is highly related to the sport-related use of social media. This usage behavior and the presented (often fitspiration) content seems to have a great impact on the young generation. Aside the motivational and informational approach of social media, a negative influence or an uncertainty of the own body shape might occur. This finding is of particular interest as some could assume that the questioned target group should have adequate digital as well as sportive experience/understanding to deal constructively with the digital content. In general, our findings indicate that more educational advertising is needed, as the information shared/posted is hardly scientifically filtered. Many users implement, for example, the given training recommendations unknowingly and inexperienced. Thus, promoting media literacy is becoming even more relevant. Everyone should be able to deal critically with social media and inquire the available content. The Body Positivity movement is a first, important approach in this direction [20]. Beside critical evaluation, alternative body images are presented, so that this movement represents a kind of counter-current to distorted thin or athletic ideals. It is evident, that the resulting social pressure and effects on mental health will be a great challenge in the future to deal with personally and professionally. That is why the key message of Body Positivity, i.e., the satisfaction and appreciation of the own body, is getting of particular importance these days. Moreover, referring to its recent wide spread, the potentials of Body Positivity to establish a healthy and self-confident mindset especially in young adults should be further discussed and researched.