Frequent Facebook users might be sharing more than party pictures, vacation videos and shameless selfies — they also share a greater risk of eating disorders, according to a new study led by Florida State University researchers.
Psychology Professor Pamela K. Keel studied 960 college women and found that more time on Facebook was associated with higher levels of disordered eating. Women who placed greater importance on receiving comments and "likes" on their status updates and were more likely to untag photos of themselves and compare their own photos to friends' posted photos reported the highest levels of disordered eating.
"Facebook provides a fun way to stay connected with friends, but it also presents women with a new medium through which they are confronted by a thin ideal that impacts their risk for eating disorders," Keel said.
The findings were outlined in a paper, "Do You 'Like' My Photo? Facebook Use Maintains Eating Disorder Risk," which was published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. Keel's co-authors are Annalise G. Mabe, a 2013 alumna who proposed the topic for her undergraduate honors thesis, and doctoral student K. Jean Forney, both of FSU.
While other studies have linked social media and eating disorders, the Florida State study is the first to show that spending just 20 minutes on Facebook actually contributes to the risk of eating disorders by reinforcing women's concerns about weight and shape and increasing anxiety.
The finding is significant because more than 95 percent of the women who participated in the study use Facebook, and those with Facebook accounts described checking the site multiple times a day, typically spending 20 minutes during each visit. That amounts to more than an hour on the site each day, according to Keel.
Researchers have long recognized the powerful impact of peer/social influences and traditional media on the risk for eating disorders. Facebook combines those factors.
"Now it's not the case that the only place you're seeing thin and idealized images of women in bathing suits is on magazine covers," Keel said. "Now your friends are posting carefully curated photos of themselves on their Facebook page that you're being exposed to constantly. It represents a very unique merging of two things that we already knew could increase risk for eating disorders."
The research is important because it may lead to interventions to reduce risk factors for eating disorders, which are among the most serious forms of mental illness.
"Eating disorders are associated with the highest rates of mortality of any psychiatric illness," Keel said. "They are associated with high rates of chronicity — they're not things that women necessarily grow out of. We know that peer factors have a significant influence, so understanding when and how peers do things that are unhelpful to one another gives us an important opportunity to protect and prevent."
Ironically, Facebook may be one of the best ways to employ intervention strategies, such as encouraging women to put a stop to so-called "fat talk."
"That's when women get together and engage in negative commentary, usually about their own body, and it gets reinforced because it's a way women bond with one another and they get reassurance — 'Oh, no, you don't look fat. Look at me,'" she said. "It's bad for women because it reinforces how important it is to be thin and reinforces really negative talk about the self."
Her advice to young women?
"Consider what it is you are pursuing when you post on Facebook," she said. "Try to remember that you are a whole person and not an object, so don't display yourself as a commodity that then can be approved or not approved."
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