Can social media cause eating disorders?
A new study in psychology finds that youth with body image concerns are more likely to spend excessive amounts of time on social media sites, contributing to eating disorder behaviour.
The effect of social media sites like Facebook and Instagram on self-esteem and body issues has been watched closely for some time now, with experts concluding that the more time spent on social media, the greater the risk of developing a host of psychological issues including, very prominently, eating disorders like bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder.
“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,” says Jaime E. Sidani, assistant director of the Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health.
Sidani’s 2011 study found that across all markers for gender, specific age, race and income, social media use was correlated with a greater risk among youth for developing eating and body image concerns.
The trend is most troubling since eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, anorexia has a mortality rate 12 times higher than any other cause of death among women ages 15 to 24 in the United States.
But the relationship between social media use and eating disorders among male and female youth is more complicated than previously thought, at least according to new research from the University of Ottawa School of Psychology and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, where a study found that not only does social media contribute to eating disorders but those who have body issue concerns such as lower weight esteem and appearance esteem (which tie self-esteem to either weight loss or appearance, respectively) are more likely to spend excessive amounts of time on social media sites, thus contributing to the risk of developing eating disorders.
Researchers surveyed 383 undergraduate students, 70 per cent of whom were female, to determine their social media use, body image and disordered eating behaviours and found that already having body issues led to greater use of social media sites. Further, the study found that social media use had a different effect on females and males. Whereas excessive social media use was correlated with restrained eating behaviour (abstaining from eating) in both females and males with body image concerns, social media was more linked to emotional eating (using food to relieve stress or to seek comfort) in females only.
“The study adds to the literature [on social media use] by highlighting mediational pathways and gender differences,” say the study’s authors, who call for more research to identify methods for reducing body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in the high-risk group of those who have body issue concerns.
According to a 2014 report from the federal government’s Standing Committee on the Status of Women, an estimated 600,000 to 900,000 Canadians exhibit behaviour that meets the criteria for an eating disorder. Research has shown that ten per cent of individuals diagnosed with anorexia nervosa will die within ten years of diagnosis. The overall mortality rate for those diagnosed with anorexia is between ten and 15 per cent and for bulimia nervosa is about five per cent.