Background  Online weight loss programmes allow members to use social media tools to give and receive social support for weight loss. However, little is known about the relationship between the use of social media tools and the perception of specific types of support.

Objective  To test the hypothesis that the frequency of using social media tools (structural support) is directly related to perceptions of Encouragement, Information and Shared Experiences support (functional support).

Design  Online survey.

Participants  Members of an online weight loss programme.

Methods  The outcome was the perception of Encouragement (motivation, congratulations), Information (advice, tips) and Shared Experiences (belonging to a group) social support. The predictor was a social media scale based on the frequency of using forums and blogs within the online weight loss programme (alpha = 0.91). The relationship between predictor and outcomes was evaluated with structural equation modelling (SEM) and logistic regression, adjusted for sociodemographic characteristics, BMI and duration of website membership.

Results  The 187 participants were mostly female (95%) and white (91%), with mean (SD) age 37 (12) years and mean (SD) BMI 31 (8). SEM produced a model in which social media use predicted Encouragement support, but not Information or Shared Experiences support. Participants who used the social media tools at least weekly were almost five times as likely to experience Encouragement support compared to those who used the features less frequently [adjusted OR 4.8 (95% CI 1.8–12.8)].

Conclusions  Using the social media tools of an online weight loss programme at least once per week is strongly associated with receiving Encouragement for weight loss behaviours.