11/08/2012 04:01 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2012

Social Media Avatars Could Help People Lose Weight, Fight Prejudice: Study

Somewhere among the thousands of people you meet on Facebook and Twitter, University of Missouri researcher Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz says you may discover a slimmer, more tolerant version of yourself.

Her theory, based on a survey of 279 users of a virtual reality community called Second Life, asserts that when an individual strongly identifies with the cyber representation of themselves (AKA, their avatar) the image can influence that person’s health and appearance.

“The creation of an avatar allows an individual to try on a new appearance and persona, with little risk or effort,” said Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz in a release. “For example, people seeking to lose weight could create fitter avatars to help visualize themselves as slimmer and healthier,” she added.

Through questionnaires, users were asked about their engagement with their avatar and relationships they developed online, as well as their offline health, appearance and emotional well-being. The more people viewed their avatars as an extension of themselves (an experience the researchers refer to as "self-presence") the greater they felt about themselves offline. Self-presence also correlated to greater satisfaction with online relationships, the study showed.

Though more research needs to be done, Behm-Morawitz says her theory may work similarly to increase empathy and decrease prejudice among users of social media. “This may occur through the process of identification with an avatar that is different from oneself, or through a virtual simulation that allows individuals to experience discrimination as a member of a non-dominant group might experience it," she said.

Ongoing research, including a 2011 report by the Pew Research Center, has shown that African Americans and Latinos make up a significant percentage of social media users -- 25 percent of African-Americans and 19 percent of Hispanics use Twitter, compared with 9 percent of Non-Hispanic Whites, Pew reports.

In an analysis as to why, BuzzFeed contributor Greg Battle points to "the pervasive number of urban themed hashtag memes" and the marketing of mobile media to minority groups.

And while Pew looked at how frequently African Americans use social sites, researchers at Georgetown looked at what they're using that media for, noting that compared with white users, Hispanic and African Americans are more likely to use social media to learn about and become involved in social issues.

But like Behm-Morawitz, researchers agree that there's a healthful use for social sites as well. In September, a study of dieters participating in a worksite weight-loss program found that those who joined a restricted, members-only Facebook page for additional weight-loss support lost more weight than those who didn't go the social media route.

Similarly, in a series of five experiments, Professors Keith Wilcox of Columbia University and Andrew T. Stephen of the University of Pittsburgh found that people who had strong ties, or close friends and family they interact with online, tend to have a higher level of self-confidence after browsing Facebook. "We argue that, because people care about the image they present to close friends on social networks, social network use enhances self-esteem in users who are focused on close friends (i.e., strong ties) while browsing their social network," the researchers wrote in their report.

Check out more of their findings on why people act differently online, in the slideshow below.



Research: 7 Reasons Why People Act Differently On Facebook