The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everyday life for many people in both trivial and profound ways. Embracing pants without a waistband, trying out creative baking – and perhaps spending a great deal of time sitting, whether for virtual meetings or Netflix binges.
For many people, these kinds of behaviors, coupled with the ongoing stressors and limitations of the pandemic, translated to pounds gained and newfound or increased feelings of discomfort about body image.
It may seem untimely to think about addressing weight loss or body image while still dealing with the uncertainties and pressures of the ongoing pandemic. However, science has shown that living through disasters and personal upheavals often causes a shift in life priorities and thinking more about the value of one’s own life. Science also reveals that life disruptions can be a great time to think about, and bring about, habit change.
I’m a developmental psychologist and health coach. I’ve taught university students about cognition and motivation for the past 20 years, as well as about lifelong physical and mental well-being. Behavioral scientists find that when these sorts of upheavals disrupt regular routines, it can become easier than ever before to get rid of unhealthy behaviors and replace them with positive changes in personal habits.
Instead, I am inviting people to redefine “the ideal body” by better appreciating the body’s functionality – what it can do – rather than focusing mostly on how it appears.
Celebrities aren’t good role models
According to Merriam-Webster, an ideal is a “standard of perfection, beauty or excellence.”
However, respecting and appreciating one’s body for what it can do, rather than how it looks or compares to cultural ideals, can positively influence body image. For example, behavioral scientists have found that exercising for health, enjoyment and wellness is associated with a positive body image and healthy eating habits, while a more negative body image is associated with exercising for appearance-related reasons.
There are physical benefits as well. For example, putting an emphasis on fitness goals, rather than weight loss, has been shown to enhance longevity. Scientists have also found that exercise can reduce an adult’s risks for a severe case of COVID-19 as well as potentially deadly complications.
On top of all this, as journalist Charles Duhigg reports in his book “The Power of Habit,” experts have found that exercise is a keystone habit that often supports adopting other positive health behaviors, such as better nutrition.
Appearance and attainability
As a psychologist, I am aware that we are an appearance-oriented culture. I’m not suggesting that people disregard aesthetic goals.
Rather, I’m suggesting that looking to other people to define one’s own body image ideals can be maladaptive. This is especially true when people choose celebrity icons and social media influencers as their ideals. For instance, there’s evidence that comparing one’s own appearance to images of celebrities is associated with both body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating.
Research suggests that the most effective role models are people with whom one identifies or shares some similarities. This makes it easier to set goals that are attainable, rather than focusing on the public images of celebrity icons. Here, too, it is important that the goals are realistic and applicable to people’s own lives. It’s also important that they avoid making appearance comparisons to people that they know, as this can also lead to body dissatisfaction.
Setting attainable goals instead involves focusing on specific behaviors to which one can commit. For example, if someone sets a goal of moving with greater ease, they might plan on going to the gym for 30 minutes three times per week. If the goal is fitting into pre-pandemic clothing, they might eliminate a less-than-healthy snack from the daily eating routine.
These are actions that people can control directly, whereas it is unclear how one would achieve the appearance or weight of a particular celebrity or friend.
A personal example
Clarifying the personal meaning of “ideal body” isn’t just a thought experiment. Understanding one’s values helps in setting goals and then establishing habits in daily life to achieve them.
Using myself as an example: As a 48-year-old, my personal body image ideal involves becoming as strong as possible as I age. I don’t want to feel or look delicate, so my workouts primarily involve resistance training – with some running thrown in for stress relief. These are attainable because I value the benefits of these activities.
To be sure that I will maintain my exercise routines, I schedule them in advance so that I know exactly how I will fit them into my day rather than leaving it up to chance and forgoing them entirely or doing them too close to my bedtime, which interferes with my sleep.
For role models, I look to the behavior of other strong women – such as the women of Girls Gone Strong, an organization that promotes women’s health and strength through fitness – to inspire me to achieve my goals.
Changing the context
Even after figuring out personal body image values and setting attainable goals, it can still be hard to let go of older unhealthy habits. Wendy Wood, a University of California psychologist and foremost expert in this arena, has found that many behaviors are activated automatically by being in a context – a location – that has past associations with that behavior. Further, those associations matter more than a person’s current goals.
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Say that attaining one’s body image and fitness goals involves taking a brisk walk every morning. Turning that into a habit means avoiding past behaviors – don’t set the coffee maker to make the morning java, turn on the television or check the phone before the walk – as well as adopting new behaviors, such as setting out the right clothes the night before and establishing a route in advance.
How to get started? A fruitful first step might be to ask: In what ways has the pandemic crisis changed my life values, priorities and attitudes? The answers may be a good foundation for successfully making a healthy shift in body ideals.
Dark side of Social Media Influencing
Dark side of Social Media Influencing
Do you follow influencers on social media? Do you always check their posts? Do you find you’re spending too much time or becoming obsessed with checking influencers’ accounts? And when you can’t check in, do you feel disconnected or lost?
If you answered yes to all of these questions, you may have whats known as “problematic engagement” with social media influencers.
But don’t blame yourself too much. You are among the many who have been swept away by dazzling social media influencing. And this can be attributed to many features and tactics social media influencers employ that help keep them influential — like livestreams and polls on Instagram.
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As experts in social media and user behaviour, we recently published a paper that looks at followers’ problematic engagement with influencers on social media. Our paper is among the first to study which aspects of social media influencing may lead to followers’ problematic engagement. It is important to examine this context considering the significant volume and revenues of social media influencing — it’s a US$13.8 billion industry.
The issue of problematic engagement
Whether you are a fashion fan or want information on health and fitness — there’s an influencer to follow. And followers often gravitate towards them for their authenticity and content creation.
But less focus is put on the dark side of social media influencing. Influencers are motivated and often incentivized (through product and brand endorsement) to increase their power on social media and many are becoming more proficient in attracting and engaging followers.
Followers, on the other hand, can easily become attached and obsessed with influencers and their engagement can often become excessive and unhealthy. Problematic engagement with social media influencers is common among followers, but not well known or understood.
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We recently examined the factors and mechanisms that lead to problematic engagement. We focused on three influencer characteristics (physical attractiveness, social attractiveness and self-presence) and two follower participation attributes (participation comprehensiveness and following length) to explore their effects on the development of problematic engagement through the formation of follower attachments.
Based on attachment theory, we studied two types of attachments — parasocial relationship and sense of belonging, both of which are key in social media influencing. Parasocial relationship is followers’ perception of their one-sided relationship with an influencer and sense of belonging refers to the feeling of being an integral member of the influencer’s community.
We conducted an online survey of 500 Instagram users. The results showed that when followers develop attachments both to influencers (parasocial relationship) and their community (sense of belonging), this can lead to problematic engagement.
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We found that influencers’ social attractiveness has a stronger effect than other factors in building followers’ attachments. Following more influencers could reduce the impact of attachment to the community (sense of belonging) when it comes to problematic engagement, but not the effect of attachment to the influencer (parasocial relationship).
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Implications for influencers and followers
Our study warns of and explains problematic engagement to social media users.
We argue that social media users who are attracted to influencers can become easily attached and engage excessively. Users need to be aware of, watch out for and exert self-regulations to manage their interactions with influencers.
For example, participation comprehensiveness — which refers to the reasons for following and extent of followers’ participation (like watching, liking, commenting, sharing) — can lead to attachment development. This, however, can be consciously managed by followers themselves. One way of doing this is by making use of the phone’s functions and tools like setting daily time limits on Instagram or turning off notifications for the app.
Social media influencers should also be aware of followers’ problematic engagement. Although it may be in contrast with their goal of increasing follower engagement, they can focus on creating a healthy relationship with their followers.
For instance, influencers can openly talk about the issue of problematic engagement and show care for their followers’ well-being. This will help with sustainability of the relationship because studies have shown that social media users with problematic behaviour are more likely to stop using platforms after a while.
More research on the dark side of social media influencers is needed and we call for future research to focus on additional negative consequences such as followers’ anxiety, depression and the impact of following influencers on followers’ well-being.
Samira Farivar, Assistant Professor, Information Systems, Sprott School of Business, Carleton University; Fang Wang, Professor, Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University, and Ofir Turel, Professor, School of Computing and Information Systems, The University of Melbourne
Adult ADHD: What it is, how to treat it
Parents and doctors have known about childhood ADHD – attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder – for decades, but it is only recently that the medical field has started to recognize, diagnose and seriously study ADHD in adults. In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we explore what adult ADHD looks like, how it is diagnosed today and the many new treatments available to help those with the disorder live better lives.
The name attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a pretty good description of this common condition, but it can manifest in a few different ways. Some people only struggle with paying attention, some people can focus on tasks but are constantly fidgeting or dealing with excessive energy and some people exhibit both attention problems and hyperactivity. But for those who study ADHD, it is how these symptoms affect people’s daily lives that is most important.
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Tamara May is a senior research fellow at Monash University in Australia. She says that ADHD “affects the way our executive functions work. These are things like how we pay attention, how we sort of moderate ourselves, how we plan and organize, time management and how we switch attention.” As May explains, many people with ADHD are forgetful and bad at time management and these issues can affect many aspects of daily life. “It means that you underachieved academically or you had to drop out. It means that your interpersonal relationships are impacted, you can’t maintain friendships or you’re heavily relying on a partner to do all your organizing.”
Thankfully, as awareness of adult ADHD has grown, so has the body of knowledge on how to treat it, both with drugs and also with behavioral therapy. Laura Knouse is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Richmond in the U.S. and studies how therapy can help adults with ADHD. She says that, according to most recent research, the best nonmedication treatments “fall under this umbrella of something we call cognitive behavioral therapy. I like to simplify that and just say a skills-based treatment, a treatment that’s going to help you figure out how to structure your environment and how to structure your time and develop the strategies that you’re going to need to make your goals real, even in the presence of having ADHD in your life.”
In the full episode of the podcast, we talk in depth with Knouse about what these therapies are, how they work in concert with medication and what’s next for treatments. Then we end the episode with Tamara May, digging into how perceptions of adult ADHD – both within medicine and culture more generally – have changed in recent years, and what it means for those who have it.
We’d love to hear what you think about The Conversation Weekly podcast and are running a listener survey about the show, which should take about five minutes to complete. Thank you!
This episode was produced by Mend Mariwany, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here.
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Who gets to decide when the pandemic is over?
Who gets to decide when the pandemic is over?
It’s been two years since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID outbreak a pandemic, and since then, people around the world have been asking the same thing: when will it end? This seems like a simple question, but historical analysis shows that “the end” of a disease is rarely experienced in unison by everyone affected.
For some, the threat is over quickly and a return to normality is eagerly anticipated. But for others, the continued threat from infection – as well as the long-term health, economic and social impacts of the disease – render official announcements of the end premature. This could, for example, include immunocompromised people, some of whom remain vulnerable to COVID despite being vaccinated.
Determining when a disease outbreak has ended is even difficult for global health agencies. The Ebola outbreak that began in 2018 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was declared over by the WHO in 2020, but subsequently flared up again. This revival was then re-declared over in December 2021.
In England, the government recently decided to lift all remaining COVID legal restrictions. But does this push towards “living with” the virus mean that England’s pandemic is over? And if not, who should decide when it is?
In the 24 hours following the announcement ending COVID restrictions, we conducted a survey to explore whether people in England believed the pandemic was over. We also explored whether they believed it was legitimate to end all COVID restrictions at this point in time, and who they believed should be able to decide when the pandemic is over.
In total, we surveyed just over 1,300 people. We recruited 500 participants who were representative of the population through the surveying company Prolific, while the remaining 800 were recruited via social media and university mailing lists. Blending these two methods meant that, while our sample wasn’t wholly representative of the public, it was diverse. For instance, 35% of participants were under 25 years old, 40% were aged 26-50 and 15% were over 50. It therefore gives us an interesting insight into how opinions may differ among the public.
Has the pandemic ended?
Of the people we surveyed, 57% disagreed that the removal of COVID restrictions indicated the end of the pandemic. In fact, only 28% agreed that the end of restrictions signalled the pandemic’s end. For most people involved in the survey, the end of the pandemic was still somewhere in the future.
We also asked people if they thought it was legitimate to end COVID restrictions. In general, the perceived legitimacy of ending restrictions was low. And while approximately 40% of people agreed that it was pragmatic to have ended restrictions in February, fewer than 25% agreed that it was the moral thing to do.
When we looked at what influenced people’s beliefs, we found that, in general, people were more likely to believe that the pandemic was over and that it was legitimate to end all restrictions if they believed that the physical and mental health threats of COVID were in the past. Additionally, those who felt that the crisis was over were generally younger and male. Many with this belief also felt that the crisis had lasted longer than two years and stated that they had often not complied with restrictions.
Interestingly, however, a number of other factors we looked at didn’t appear to be related to people’s beliefs about the legitimacy of ending restrictions. For instance, we didn’t find a link between people’s thoughts about lifting restrictions and their concerns about the social, economic, educational and employment consequences of COVID, or their engagement with the vaccination programme, or them having a close relative die from COVID.
Who should decide when it ends?
Half of our participants believed that it should be scientists who decide when the pandemic ends. In contrast, fewer than 5% believed that the government should decide. Belief that the government should decide also appears to be falling. When participants were asked to think back to how they would have answered this question 18 months ago, over 10% said that they would have said back then that the government should take the decision.
Critically, beliefs about who should end the pandemic varied between groups of people. Men were more likely than women to believe the decision should rest with the government. Unvaccinated people were more likely to believe that a public vote should be held to decide. And perhaps unsurprisingly, being vaccinated was associated with a greater belief that this decision should be taken by scientists.
Despite a long-held wish for the pandemic to end, our findings suggest many may feel it is far from over, and that the public may disagree over whether the government has the right to make this call. As the UK’s restrictions end, we face the possibility of widening inequality, as some feel they can return to “normalcy”, while others feel the pandemic’s endpoint still lies in the future. One of the newest challenges posed by the pandemic, therefore, is how we reconcile these differences as the country emerges from the pandemic.
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