The findings are based on an experiment conducted using a fictitious Facebook profile.
"This is a clear indictment of sexy social media photos," said researcher Elizabeth Daniels, an assistant professor of psychology at the Oregon State University.
"There is so much pressure on teen girls and young women to portray themselves as sexy, but sharing those sexy photos on-line may have more negative consequences than positive," Daniels said.
Girls and young women are in a "no-win" situation when it comes to their Facebook photos, Daniels said.
Those who post sexy photos may risk negative reactions from their peers, but those who post more wholesome photos may lose out on social rewards, including attention from boys and men, she said.
"Social media is where the youth are. We need to understand what they're doing on-line and how that affects their self-concept and their self-esteem," she said.
For the study co-authored by Eileen L Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Daniels created two mock Facebook profiles for the fictitious 20-year-old Amanda Johnson.
In both versions, Amanda liked musicians such as Lady Gaga, books such as 'Twilight' and movies like 'The Notebook' that would be appropriate for a person her age.
The only difference between the two was the profile photo. The photos were actual high school senior portrait and prom photos of a real young woman who allowed the photos to be used for the experiment.
In the sexy photo, "Amanda" is wearing a low-cut red dress with a slit up one leg to mid-thigh and a visible garter belt. In the non-sexy photo, she's wearing jeans, a short-sleeved shirt and a scarf draped around her neck, covering her chest.
Study participants were 58 teen girls, ages 13-18, and 60 young adult women no longer in high school, ages 17-25. They were randomly assigned one of the profiles and asked questions based on that profile.
The participants were asked to assess Amanda's physical attractiveness, social attractiveness, and task competence on a scale from 1-7, with one being strongly disagree and 7 being strongly agree.
In all three areas, the non-sexy profile scored higher, indicating that those who viewed that photo thought Amanda was prettier, more likely to make a good friend and more likely to complete a task.
The largest difference was in the area of task competence, suggesting a young woman's capabilities are really dinged by the sexy photo, Daniels said.
The research was published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.