Can Social Media and Peer Influence Contribute to Body Dissatisfaction and Eating Disorders in Young Women?

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When I am not busy with family- or work-related issues, I am spending time researching information on the role that social media plays in today's society. Today, I came across a couple of interesting articles about the potential role that social media may have on body dissatisfaction and eating disorders in young women.

The degree to which media contributes to body dissatisfaction and eating disorder symptoms in teenage girls it is apparently debatable (Ferguson et al. 2013). Some believe that media influences on body dissatisfaction may extend to eating disorder symptoms, possibly explaining increases in eating disorders across the twentieth century in Western nations. For example, a study conducted by the University of Haifa in 2011 showed that the more time teenage girls spend on Facebook, the higher their risk of developing negative body images and eating disorders.

Eating disorders (e.g., anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating) are a complex set of illnesses caused by genetic, biological, behavioural, psychological and social factors. These disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. To my surprise, I found out that Anorexia, in particular, has a mortality rate 12 times higher than any other cause of death in women ages 15 to 24, according to the American Institute of Mental Health.

According to some studies, social media, where users exchange information and photos and communities form over common interests, has become a bastion for some struggling with eating disorders. Images of spindly legs, concave stomachs and jutting ribs emerge on various sites by searching hashtags like #thinspogram #thighgap or #bonespo.

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Having said this, it is important to mention that in recent years, social media sites have made attempts to censor content that encourages eating disorders and self-harm. Instagram, for example, banned certain hashtags and instituted new guidelines against self-harm images and accounts. Individuals are also beginning to share their personal histories and photos of recovery on social media, using hashtags like #edrecovery, #edsoldier and #foodisfuel and posting images of their meals. NEDA also asks social media users to join the pro-recovery movement by sharing posts and using the hashtag #prorecovery.

Interestingly, other researchers contend that links between media and body dissatisfaction are not consistent, may be explained by other variables such as personality traits or family environment, or may apply only to some girls but not others (Roberts and Good 2010). The most recent meta-analysis of ~200 studies that examined media effects on body dissatisfaction and eating disorders concluded that the evidence for relationships between social media and either body dissatisfaction or eating disorders are largely inconsistent. Only small overall links between media ideals and body dissatisfaction in women already predisposed to body dissatisfaction were found in this study. Evidence for a link with eating disorders was largely absent.

By contrast, a recent study conducted by Fergurson et al. (2013) on 237 young American girls suggests that peer competition, rather than television or social media exposure, is more salient to body and eating issues in teenage girls. Young people are often deeply influenced by their peer group. However, most of the time, this influence is very subtle, and they do not notice the changes in their behaviour, attitudes and skills. Peer influence also exerts pressures. At times, many young people end up doing things they would not have done on their own. It is important to mention that the majority of the girls Fergurson et al.'s (2013) study were of Hispanic origin, suggesting that ethnicity may also play a role in body dissatisfaction in young women.

Tips for Parents

I have learned a couple of important things from these studies.

(1) Social Media and Internet Time: We should encourage our children, especially girls, to use their net time wisely.

(2) Peer Influence: Young people tend to engage in both positive and negative behaviours with their friends and peer groups. Although having friends is essential to healthy psychological and social development, the quality of relationships, and the types of activities they engage in, are also important to consider when examining the health and well‑being of young people. It is essential that we discuss the pros and cons of peer influence with our children. 

Papers Cited
Fergurson, et al. 2013. Concurrent and prospective analyses of peer, television
and social media influences on body dissatisfaction, eating disorder symptoms and life satisfaction in adolescent girls. file:///C:/Users/default.SID18285/Documents/Blogging/BodyImageProspective.pdf.

Roberts, A., & Good, E. (2010). Media images and female body dissatisfaction: The moderating effects of the five-factor traits. Eating Behaviors, 11(4), 211–216. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2010.

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