Social Media and Eating Disorders – A Dangerous Association

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Social media is often criticized for its role in eating disorders and the proliferation of communities that encourage young women to give up healthy eating habits in the pursuit of being thin. Some platforms like Instagram have even taken direct efforts to censor pro-eating disorder content, but even those efforts have seemed to only make matters worse.

Now, research from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has drawn a direct association between spending large amounts of time on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and risk of eating disorders and body image issues.

“Social media combines many of the visual aspects of traditional media with the opportunity for social media users to interact and propagate stereotypes,” said lead author Jaime E. Sidani, Ph.D., M.P.H., in a report published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

To explore the influence of social media on eating disorders and disordered eating habits, the team analyzed 1,765 adults in the U.S. between the ages of 19 and 32. The participants were asked to respond to two separate questionnaires.

The first focused on social media use across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Tumblr, Pinterest, Snapchat, Vine, and Reddit.

The second survey specifically analyzed the risks of developing eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. This questionnaire also evaluated the risk of developing other mental health conditions or disorders frequently associated with eating disorders.

According to the results of the surveys, the participants who spent the largest amount of time logged onto social media each week were more than twice as likely to develop body image issues and eating disorders. Even more so, those who were actively checking feeds and engaging on the platforms were at even high risk.

It is important to note the study only found an association between the two. It is unclear whether social media directly leads or eating disorders or vice-versa, but it could be useful for identifying those at the highest risk for eating disorders for early intervention.

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