Frequent social media use is correlated with a higher risk of eating disorders and negative body image, according to a new study based on a survey of young adults conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. As always, it’s worth noting that correlation doesn’t equal causation, and a number of different explanations are possible – but the findings are certainly food for thought for parents, educators, and healthcare professionals who work with teens and young adults around these issues.T
The study, titled “The Association between Social Media Use and Eating Concerns among US Young Adults” and published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,” surveyed 1,765 adults ages 19-32 with questionnaires about their use of social platforms including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.
The authors then cross-referenced these results with data gathered by another questionnaire used to determine the risk of eating disorders in individuals, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder as well as distorted body image and other types of eating disorder.
Respondents who spent more time on social media were over twice as likely (2.2 times) to report factors putting them at risk of eating disorders or distorted body image, when compared with respondents who spent less time. Meanwhile, frequency of check-ins were even more closely correlated with these risk factors, with respondents who checked in most often 2.6 times as those who checked in least often to have risk factors.
The correlation was seen across categories including gender, age, race, and income, suggesting that it is a broad-based phenomenon. However, as noted above it’s unclear whether social media usage is causing eating disorders, or if (for example) people with eating disorders gravitate to social media for emotional support. People with eating disorders may also use social media for a different kind of emotional support, seeking out groups that encourage eating disorders, like the notorious “pro-ana” sites and “thinspo” forums – another scenario where social media works to enable a pre-existing condition.
Nonetheless, one obvious interpretation is that heavy usage of social media, with its increasingly visual content and emphasis on idealized images, is in fact causing or exacerbating eating disorders.
On that note lead author Jaime E. Sidani stated: “We’ve long known that exposure to traditional forms of media, such as fashion magazines and television, is associated with the development of disordered eating and body image concerns, likely due to the positive portrayal of ‘thin’ models and celebrities. Social media combines many of the visual aspects of traditional media with the opportunity for social media users to interact and propagate stereotypes that can lead to eating and body image concerns.”