Abstract: Keeping up with the Kardashians’ Skin: Skin Cancer Prevention Interventions to Buffer Users from the Negative Effects of Instagram

◆ Jessica Myrick, Penn State University
◆ Jessica Willoughby, Washington State University

Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, kills nearly 10,000 Americans each year, with rates of melanoma increasing steadily since the late 1980s (American Cancer Society, 2017). Because most cases of melanoma are preventable, researchers have been actively crafting interventions to promote skin health.

One approach to counter-act the problem of skin cancer is appearance-focused interventions. These interventions typically involve showing individuals images of skin damage caused by ultraviolet rays and discussing 1.) the damage to one’s appearance caused by UV rays; and, 2.) the socially desirable (e.g., fewer wrinkles or scars) appearance that can be preserved by avoiding UV rays.

While these interventions demonstrate short-term effectiveness, the focus on appearance could prime concerns about not meeting an ideal appearance standard, which could damage self-worth and lead young women to experience appearance-related shame. Telling women that they need to improve their appearance could backfire long-term by motivating them to do whatever it takes to maintain socially rewarded tan-skin norms.

Because of the potential for negative long-term consequences with emphasizing appearance norms, we decided to experimentally compare two alternative skin cancer prevention interventions. Specifically, we examined whether Instagram messages that focus on self-compassion (i.e., be kind to yourself, forgive yourself for past UV exposure, love your skin) and anticipated pride (i.e., imagine how good you will feel putting your skin health first) could produce similar behavioral results without increasing body shame or surveillance behaviors that can tempt individuals to tan. Theories related to emotion regulation and behavior change suggest that self-compassion and anticipated pride can motivate individuals to avoid short-term temptations (tanning) in return for long-term gains (cancer-free skin).

We compared these social media interventions in an ecologically valid scenario whereby Instagram users were also shown pro-tanning content, which is common on these platforms (Ricklefs et al., 2016). Social media use is correlated with tanning behavior (Stapleton, Hillhouse, Coups, & Pagoto, 2016). Therefore, after viewing either an intervention message (self-compassion, anticipated pride, or appearance-focused) or a control message, participants all viewed another Instagram post of a celebrity (one of the Kardashian-Jenner sisters) outside, in the sun, with tan skin. This allows us to test if these interventions could buffer women from negative effects of viewing tan celebrities.

A sample of 630 female Instagram users (ages 18-35) was recruited from a national paid opt-in online survey. Of those, 315 completed a follow-up questionnaire one week later.

Our results revealed that, after controlling for skin type and the perceived amount of sunny weather, individuals who viewed the appearance-focused intervention spent more time outside without sunscreen and more time purposefully sunbathing the week after message exposure than those who viewed the self-compassion, anticipated pride, or control messages. Moreover, a variety of affective and cognitive responses to the Instagram intervention messages partially mediated these results, as demonstrated in a path analysis. In summary, even a very short (single post) Instagram message telling young women their appearance is important can have unintended consequences leading to increased skin harm behaviors.