Eating Disorders

Does Social Media Drive Eating Disorders?

Teens who spend more time on social media have more disordered eating behaviors.

Posted Dec 11, 2019

Photo by bruce mars from Pexels
Selfies encourage body-image awareness.
Source: Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

There is nothing new in worrying about what social media might be doing to kids’ developing self-image. Just recently, one group of researchers showed that even 30 minutes a day increased teens' feelings of anxiety, depression, poor self-image, and loneliness. Now, a different group of researchers in Australia has found that the more time teens spent on social media, the more likely they were to have an eating disorder.

Most previous studies have looked at the effect of social media on body image in women without looking specifically at behaviors. The researchers behind this latest study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, wanted to know whether social media time changed what actually kids did. They reported that “a clear pattern of association was found between [social media] usage and [disordered eating] cognitions and behaviors with this exploratory study confirming that these relationships occur at younger‐age than previously investigated.”

Kids love social media with pictures.

Anyone who spends time with kids knows that they prefer image-based social media. Snapchat is the most popular among the U.S. teens I see in the pediatric office, with Instagram a close second. These two networks are remarkably similar: Kids post selfies and wait to see how many likes they get. Often, to make sure they look right, they make extensive use of filters and image editing.

For this study, the group gathered data from 996 seventh- and eighth-grade adolescents, about half of them girls and half of them boys. The more social media accounts each adolescent had, and the more time they spent on them, the more likely they were to demonstrate disordered eating. In particular, “Girls with Snapchat and Tumblr accounts and boys with Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram were significantly more likely to have both [disordered eating] behaviors and over‐evaluation of shape and weight in the clinical range.”

When girls spent more daily time using Instagram or Snapchat, they showed significantly higher rates of disordered eating behaviors. These behaviors included strict exercise or skipping meals. Like most studies of this type, these findings show a correlation: Social media time and disorder eating behaviors go together. That is not the same as proving a cause, but the data shows an impressive relationship. 

The most alarming finding was the percentage of kids who were disordered in their eating behaviors overall: 51.7% of the girls and 45.0% of the boys in the study.

Aren’t eating disorders a female problem?

Eating disorders are commonly thought to be a problem for girls, but this is simply not true. “Many thoughtful researchers have offered up data about male body dysmorphia, showing that body image concerns and eating disorders alike are basically gender-neutral,” wrote Cara Natterson, M.D. in a recent article for the NYTimes.

Simon Wilksch, Ph.D., the study’s lead author, told Consumer Health Day, "I can say that the presence of disordered eating behaviors in boys in the current study was nearly four times higher than found two decades ago in another Australian study. Also, in my eating disorder treatment clinic, I am seeing many more young males than previously. And for approximately a third of these, muscle-building is a significant concern.”

These were 12 and 13-year-olds.

The mean age in the study population was 13. Wilksch reported that it was a finding of concern “that over half of our sample who had a social media account were younger than 13, the recommended minimum age for these platforms.”

Parents are often shocked when they find out how young their kids see messages about body-image. Postponing social media until at least 13 is one way to protect kids. It is also important for parents to become active participants with kids on social media by friending them and following their accounts.

But when kids don't want their parents to know what is really being said on their social media, they find workarounds. For example, kids keep parents in the dark is by creating “Finsta” accounts, or Instagram accounts under a different user name, that their parents do not follow. Even when their child’s social media feed looks innocuous, parents are right to listen to their feelings if something about their child’s behavior is bothering them.

References

Wilksch, Simon, PhD., O'Shea, Anne, PhD., et.al. (Dec. 3, 2019) "The relationship between social media use and disordered eating in young adolescents." International Journal of Eating Disorders