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Study: How Social Media Promotes Eating Disorder in Young Adults

May 12, 2016 10:12 AM EDT

It has been widely known that fashion magazines and televisions featuring "thin" models and fit actors can influence how people see their body. They can feel insecure not having the body that they adore and can later on develop eating disorders just to stay in advertised shape.

A new study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, suggests that social media can also be associated to a greater risk of young adults developing eating and body image concerns, regardless of their gender, age, race and income.

According to Jaime E. Sidani, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant director of Pitt's Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health and lead author of the study, it has been widely accepted that exposure to traditional forms of media, such as fashion magazines and television, is associated with the development of disordered eating and body image concerns.

"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," said Sidani in a statement.

For the study, researchers randomly selected 1,765 young adults aged 19 to 32 years from a national probability-based online non-volunteer panel.

The participants were given a questionnaire to assess the volume and frequency of social media use. The questionnaires asked about the 11 most popular social media platforms at the time, which include Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat, and Reddit.

The results of the questionnaire are then cross-referenced to the result of another questionnaire that used established screening tools to assess eating disorder risk.

The researchers discovered that participants who spent the most time on social media throughout the day had 2.2 times the risk of reporting eating and body image concerns, compared to other participants who spent less time on social media, while participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had 2.6 times the risk.

Their findings support previous studies that show that people tend to post images online that present themselves positively, like picking a picture where they look thinner than usual. This kind of attitude can result to exposure to unrealistic expectations of their appearance. Social media bashing can also contirbute in the promotion of eating and image concerns.

Some of the social media outlets have already putting up some preventive measures to lessen the promotion of unrealistic body expectations. Instagram, for example, has already banned "#thinspiration" and "#thinspo".

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