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Social media and sexualized photos

Nowadays, social media has a very strong impact on young people. They offer young people the opportunity to showcase their image both literally and figuratively. Browsing through any social media channel, all it takes is a few flicks of the thumb to see some selfie pictures.

The pervasive body worship and sexualization of women put pressure on young girls to post sexualized and body-exposing photos of themselves online. The issue of sexuality in media coverage has recently become a public concern and an important topic that psychologists have taken up as well. According to a report by the American Psychological Association (APA), the sexualization of girls carries a risk of negative consequences.

American researchers conducted a study to see how often young women post sexually explicit photos of themselves on Instagram and Facebook, and whether these photos have a positive reception in terms of “likes” and number of followers. The researchers also wanted to examine individual differences that predict which women post such photos on social media.

Sixty-one young college-aged women participated in the study. They were asked to download their ten most recent photos posted on social media and complete several questionnaires. They systematically coded each of the 1,060 photos to obtain a sexualization score based on things like clothing, expression, and body parts that were visible in the photo. The scores for each photo were then averaged to produce one score that represented sexualization on Facebook and one on Instagram.

Interestingly, we found that photos published on Instagram were more likely to be sexualized than those published on Facebook. However, regardless of platform, sexualization rates were quite low. Although the maximum possible sexualization score was 23, the highest score for any person was 8.85, and the average scores for Instagram and Facebook were 4.71 and 4.23, respectively.

It turns out that the level of sexualization is actually lower than we think. Because of our emotional attachment to such photos, we may overestimate their frequency. Such a condition psychologists call the availability heuristic.

In addition to analyzing the photos themselves, the researchers also paid attention to the number of likes of the photos and the number of subscriptions to the accounts of the female participants in the study. On both Facebook and Instagram, women who posted sexually explicit photos had more likes, more friends and more followers. However, on Instagram (but not Facebook), the more sexually charged a photo was, the more likes it received.

The results of the study showed that women’s desire for attention, however, was the strongest predictor of posting sexually explicit photos on social media.

Public attention has been directed at the sexualized way some girls portray themselves online. Some argue that women controlling their sexualized image represents the sexual empowerment of young women. If the latter claim is true, then women who post sexualized selfies should report having control over their sexuality in live encounters as well. The survey data shows that this is not the case. Women who post sexualized photos on social media are less likely to report that they feel comfortable talking to potential partners about their sexual desires and are no more likely than other women to feel sexual desire, interest in sex, or be comfortable in their own bodies or be able to reject unwanted sexual propositions.

When a woman who focuses excessive attention on her own physical attractiveness and receives general acceptance from society, over time she begins to think of herself as a sex object. Such a phenomenon is called self-sexualization. According to the research, it appears that women’s self-sexualization is not as common as one would think and does not actually translate into enhancing their sexuality.

According to the researchers, there is a need for more research of a similar nature. And given the amount of selfies being posted on social media these days, there is little risk of running out of data to analyze.

These findings are described in the article entitled „Picture this: Women’s self-sexualization in photos on social media” published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, 15.10.2018(Authors: Ramsey L.R., Horan A.L.) DOI:10.1016/j.paid.2017.06.022. Translation was done with the assistance of DeepL translator.