A study of Instagram users shows that if someone sees their friend eating a salad on the app, they are more likely to be ‘nudged’ to have a salad that day.
We mock our social media peers for sharing their meals on Instagram, but a recent study out of the UK has found that social media is quickly becoming a significant determinant when it comes to what we choose to eat, whether we are conscious of it or not.
The research comes from Aston University’s School of Life and Health Sciences where scientists discovered that participants ate, on average, an extra fifth of a portion of fruit and vegetables themselves for every portion they thought their social media peers ate.
Conversely, Facebook users consumed an extra portion of unhealthy food and drink for every three portions they believed their online social circles did.
The Aston University researchers claim these findings as the first evidence to suggest one’s online social circle has the capacity to implicitly influence their eating habits, with important implications for using ‘nudge’ techniques on social media to encourage healthy eating.
The study played out like this: 369 university students were tasked to estimate the amount of fruit, vegetables, ‘energy-dense’ snacks and sugary-heavy drinks their peers on Facebook consumed daily. This information was then cross-referenced with the participants’ own eating habits.
Scientists discovered that participants ate, on average, an extra fifth of a portion of fruit and vegetables themselves for every portion they thought their social media peers ate.
Those that felt their social circle was approving of eating junk food consumed significantly more themselves. The opposite was also true; participants who guessed that their friends ate healthier diets ate more portions of fruit and vegetables themselves. It is likely that their perceptions could have come from being exposed to friends’ posts about the food and drink they consumed.
“This study suggests we may be influenced by our social peers more than we realise when choosing certain foods,” said Lily Hawkins, health psychology PhD student of Aston University. “We seem to be subconsciously accounting for how others behave when making our own food choices.”
“The implication is that we can use social media as a tool to ‘nudge’ each other’s eating behaviour within friendship groups, and potentially use this knowledge as a tool for public health interventions.”
Professor Claire Farrow, Director of Aston University’s Applied Health, added: “With children and young people spending a huge amount of time interacting with peers and influencers via social media, the important new findings from this study could help shape how we deliver interventions that help them adopt healthy eating habits from a young age — and stick with them for life.”
Professor Farrow also stressed that we should be mindful with ‘nudging’ positive behaviours, so as not to turn the action into a ‘shaming’ of food choices. “We know that generating guilt around food is not particularly helpful when it comes to lifestyle change and maintenance.”
What’s next? Well, the researchers have stated that the ensuing stage of their work would involve tracking a participant group over time to determine the extent social media influences have on eating habits, and the longer-term impacts on weight these influences bear.