Social Media Stresses Vanity Over All Else, Promotes Eating Disorders In Adolescents

ADELAIDE, Australia — As today’s adolescents and teens habitually log onto social media platforms, they are constantly being bombarded with the message that looks, beauty, and the appearance of a perfect life and body are essentially the only factors that really matter in life. Consequently, the more an adolescent uses social media, the more likely they are to develop an eating disorder and poor body image.

That’s the finding from a new study conducted in Australia that is stressing the need for more intervention methods to remind young people that despite what they may encounter online, there is more to one’s self-worth than their amount of followers or body fat percentage.

According to the research team, social media platforms that focus heavily on image sharing, such as Instagram and Snapchat, are both the most popular among adolescents and also the most harmful from a psychological perspective. Despite the fact that this generation of adolescents have quite literally grown up with the internet, and are more smartphone savvy than any other group before, that doesn’t mean they are any less influenced by the near-sighted, vain messages that are constantly being purveyed online.

Researchers from Flinders University and the University of Western Australia surveyed 996 middle school students (between the ages of 11-13) on how often they use platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Snapchat. Also, participating kids were asked about their eating habits and views on their own self-worth.

In all, 51.7% of surveyed girls reported behaviors related to eating disorders, as well as 45% of the male participants. The most common unhealthy eating habits reported by respondents were strict exercise, and skipping meals in order to lose weight or prevent putting on extra pounds.

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The vast majority of participants had at least one social media profile (75.4% of girls, 69.9% of boys), with Instagram being the most common. This is especially noteworthy because half of the study’s participants were under the age 13, which is supposed to be the minimum age to even have a profile on Instagram. Unfortunately, Instagram does not have a stringent age-verification process, meaning many younger children are able to sign up.

Additionally, the study’s authors found that the more social media accounts an adolescent has, and the more time they spend on such platforms, the greater the chance they will develop an eating disorder or poor self-image.

“A key component of preventing eating disorders is to give the message that our self-worth should be defined by a mix of our abilities, values and relationships,” says lead author Dr. Simon Wilksch, a Senior Research Fellow in Psychology at Flinders University, in a release. “Social media seems to encourage young people to focus strongly on their appearance and the way it is judged or perceived by others.”g

“To find these clear associations between disordered eating and social media use in young adolescent girls and boys suggests that much more needs to be done to increase resilience in young people to become less adversely impacted by social media pressures,” Dr. Wilksch adds.

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

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