Newly Published Research Finds Social Media as Precipitating Factor in Eating Disorders
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Newly Published Research Finds Social Media as Precipitating Factor in Eating Disorders

By Discovery Behavioral Health

Newly Published Research Finds Social Media as Precipitating Factor in Eating Disorders

The research involved nearly 3,000 participants admitted to residential treatment centers operated by the Center for Discovery

A new study published in a leading medical journal found that social media, and in particular Facebook and Instagram, contributes to eating disorders not only among teen and adolescent women but also among young men and adult men and women.

The study surveyed 2,901 patients beginning in 2015, who were admitted to evidence-based treatment at Center for Discovery, a nationwide network of eating disorder treatment centers, and part of Discovery Behavioral Health's expanding network of evidence-based mental health, substance use, and eating disorder treatment centers with 130 facilities nationwide.

Entitled "Outcomes and Trajectories of Change in Patients Attributing Their Eating Disorder Onset to Anti-obesity Messaging," and published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine [ISSN: 0033-3174 (Print) 1534-7796 (Electronic)], the study examined if patients receiving eating disorder treatment attributed the onset of their eating disorder to weight stigmatizing messages, and where they received such messages. Common sources of this messaging included social media, and both Facebook and Instagram were specifically named in the dataset as sources of the anti-"obesity" messaging that precipitated the participants' eating disorders.

The study confirms Facebook's own research as revealed by former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen, who testified before the U.S. Senate last week. In one of Haugen's earlier submissions to the Securities and Exchange Commission, research showed "13.5 percent of teen girls on Instagram say the platform makes thoughts of 'Suicide and Self Injury' worse" and "17 percent say the platform makes 'Eating Issues; such as anorexia worse." Its research also claimed Facebook's platforms "make body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls." (Instagram is owned by Facebook.)

However, the new study expands the scope of those affected by social media messaging and builds upon previous studies suggesting a correlation between body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and social media messaging. In fact, those in the study who attributed social media as a precipitating factor in their eating disorders tended to have more severe eating disorders, whether it was anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.

One of the lead researchers of the new study was Jen Henretty, Ph.D., CEDS, a clinical psychologist and Executive Director of Clinical Outcomes for Discovery Behavioral Health. "Although Congress just heard testimony from a whistleblower about Facebook knowing that Facebook and Instagram platforms are harming young people, academia has been studying the effects of these platforms for years."

"Our study adds to the dozens of previously published studies that suggest that Instagram and Facebook can be harmful. For example, previous research shows that users of Instagram experience greater body dissatisfaction, greater appearance-related pressure, and more eating pathology than non-users. According to research, the more time someone spends looking at Instagram, the more likely they will experience disordered eating," says Henretty.

Among the key findings in the new study was that patients who identified anti-"obesity" messaging as a precipitant to their eating disorder had more severe symptoms at admission than patients who did not.

"The implication here is that weight-stigmatizing messaging, be it from social media, a doctor, or school curriculum is harmful. We propose that shifting to weight-neutral, health-promoting messages is safer and much more effective," she says.

Despite the ubiquity of Facebook, Instagram, and other social media, Henretty says there are concrete ways to fight its harmful effects, including these tips:

  1. Unfollow fitness-inspiration or diet-promoting accounts. Overwhelming research has shown that diets don't work and come with a higher risk for eating disorders.
  2. Minimize the number of celebrity accounts followed. Select a few celebrities known for their talent or social or environmental activism, and unfollow the rest.
  3. Step away from the device. If you don't feel like scrolling or posting, you're not alone. Spending time outside and especially in nature is a great way to get back in touch with ourselves and real reality.
  4. Diversify your content. We often see attractiveness represented in a very narrow way in social media – usually thin/muscular, white, able-bodied, hyper-feminine, or masculine. Don't fall into that trap. Follow accounts where human beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, ability levels, and expressions of gender.
  5. Remind yourself, your friends, and your family that while social media can promote positives causes such as social justice and environmentalism, it also is a powerful tool to sell stuff. One sales technique is to make you feel that you're not quite good enough without their product or service. Actively reject that idea! You are enough.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of IndraStra Global.