blog | 03.10.2019 | David McArthur

Can Facebook make you fat?

The popularity of social media is unquestionable. It is estimated that in 2018 2.65 billion of us were using social media worldwide, with a projected increase to almost 3.1 billion in 2021(1). In 2018 the UK had 44 million active social media users; 38 million of those were accessing these channels on their mobile phones(2). As the number of social media users has been increasing dramatically, it is important to understand if this will be beneficial or detrimental to public health. In this blog, Dr David McArthur examines the relationship between social media use and obesity.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter often find themselves in the news. Given the number of people using these services globally, this is unsurprising. One area which interests researchers is the potential health impacts. Some argue they can be a force for good. People can boast about their exercise regime and healthy eating. They can encourage and support each other in their efforts to lead healthier lifestyles. They can also compete about who has climbed the most Munros or who has cycled fastest.

There is potentially another side. Time spent using social media may be sedentary rather than active. There is also evidence linking social media and poor mental health. For example, people who spend more time on social media may have an overly positive impression of the lives of others, which in turn makes them feel worse about themselves. This depression could result in an inactive lifestyle, making their health worse.

In a recent paper using data from the UBDC’s integrated Multimedia City Data (iMCD) collection, we considered whether the frequency of social media use is related to how much walking a person does. We also looked at whether a person’s body mass index (BMI) is related to the frequency of their social media use. One innovation in this study was to look at how much walking a person says they do, compared to how much is recorded by a GPS device they were carrying.

The first part of our analysis shows that people who use social media most intensively are more likely to be obese compared to people who don’t use it at all. This finding still applies when we control for several other factors such as age, health condition, etc.

The second part of our analysis shows that we get different results depending on whether we use the amount of walking reported by individuals or the measurements taken from their GPS device. Using the self-reported measure gives no relationship between social media use and walking. However, when we use the objective measure of walking (GPS data), we find that the most intensive users of social media tend to walk less.

Overall, while we can’t be sure whether Facebook will make a person fat, we have shown that the most intensive users of social media tend to walk less and are more likely to be obese and that they may be underestimating their activity levels. More research is required to better understand the reasons for this relationship.

Notes

1) Number of social network users worldwide from 2010 to 2021 (in billions)

2) Total number and the share of population of active social media and mobile social media users in the United Kingdom (UK) in January 2018

David McArthur

Dr David McArthur is the Associate Director for Training and Capacity Building at UBDC and is a Senior Lecturer in Transport Studies at the University of Glasgow.

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