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Study: Facebook Use Linked To Eating Disorder Risk

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Maybe we should start a series called, "How social media inflame appearance-related disorders."

First there was Sylvia Pagan Westphal's concerned exploration of some teen girls' obsession with the "thigh gap." She wrote that social media pressure is "like peer pressure on steroids — a vehicle for immediate feedback about you, the way you look, or what you think of others. And those opinions are so widely broadcast. Depending on a teen’s social media prowess, that can mean hundreds, even thousands of extra eyes."

In a sadly similar vein, a recent study — Do You ‘Like’ My Photo? Facebook Use Maintains Eating Disorder Risk — out from Florida State University finds that "spending just 20 minutes on Facebook actually contributes to the risk of eating disorders by reinforcing women’s concerns about weight and shape and increasing anxiety." More from today's press release:

"Psychology Professor Pamela K. Keel studied 960 college women and found that more time on Facebook was associated with higher levels of disordered eating. Women who placed greater importance on receiving comments and “likes” on their status updates and were more likely to untag photos of themselves and compare their own photos to friends’ posted photos reported the highest levels of disordered eating."

The finding is significant because more than 95 percent of the women who participated in the study use Facebook, and those with Facebook accounts described checking the site multiple times a day, typically spending 20 minutes during each visit. That amounts to more than an hour on the site each day, according to Keel.

Researchers have long recognized the powerful impact of peer/social influences and traditional media on the risk for eating disorders. Facebook combines those factors.

“Now it’s not the case that the only place you’re seeing thin and idealized images of women in bathing suits is on magazine covers,” Keel said. “Now your friends are posting carefully curated photos of themselves on their Facebook page that you’re being exposed to constantly. It represents a very unique merging of two things that we already knew could increase risk for eating disorders.”

The research is important because it may lead to interventions to reduce risk factors for eating disorders, which are among the most serious forms of mental illness.

Keel's advice: “Try to remember that you are a whole person and not an object, so don’t display yourself as a commodity that then can be approved or not approved.”

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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