Pre-teens using social media more likely to develop binge-eating issues later on

TORONTO, Ontario — When is it appropriate for an adolescent to begin browsing social media or staring at their own personal smartphone? It’s a tough question to answer, simply because such technologies are still so new and there’s no consensus on how they impact development. A recent study, however, is making a pretty compelling case for preteens to stay off their phones. Researchers from the Universities of Toronto and California-San Francisco report kids who have too much screen time are more likely to develop binge-eating disorders a year later.

More specifically, for each additional hour a child between nine or 10 years-old spends on digital devices, they face a 62-percent higher chance of developing a binge-eating disorder. Similarly, each extra hour spent streaming content carries a 39-percent higher risk of binge-eating.

“Children may be more prone to overeating while distracted in front of screens. They may also be exposed to more food advertisements on television. Binge-watching television may lead to binge-eating behaviors because of overconsumption and a loss of control,” says lead study author Jason Nagata, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at UCSF, in a media release.

Could COVID make this trend even worse?

Researchers examined data encompassing 11,025 children between the ages of nine and 11, collected between 2016 and 2019 for the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. Those kids had answered a series of questions on their media consumption and screen time habits across various areas (TV, texting, social media, etc). Each parent answered questions about their son or daughter’s eating habits, including their tendency to over-eat.

“Exposure to social media and unattainable body ideals may lead to a negative body image and subsequent binge eating,” adds senior study author, Kyle T. Ganson, PhD, an assistant professor at Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. “This study emphasizes the need for more research on how screen time impacts the well-being of young people now and in the future.”

Study authors note their data comes from a point prior to COVID-19. However, they say their findings take on greater importance within the context of a pandemic keeping children in their homes.

“With remote learning, the cancellation of youth sports, and social isolation, children are currently exposed to unprecedented levels of screen time,” Nagata concludes. “Although screen time can have important benefits such as education and socialization during the pandemic, parents should try to mitigate risks from excessive screen time such as binge eating. Parents should regularly talk to their children about screen-time usage and develop a family media use plan.”

The study is published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.