*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on PsychCentral.
Habitual and prolonged use of social media is linked to a greater risk of younger adults developing eating and body image concerns, according to a new study.
Specifically, University of Pittsburgh medical school researchers found that checking social media sites frequently throughout the week or spending hours scanning various social feeds during the day was associated with body image issues.
Researchers found the link was consistent for gender, specific age, race, and income. They found that all demographic groups were equally affected by the link between social media and eating and body image concerns.
The results are reported in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“We’ve long known 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, likely due to the positive portrayal of ‘thin’ models and celebrities,” said lead author Jaime E. Sidani, Ph.D., M.P.H.
“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.”
Sidani and her colleagues sampled 1,765 U.S. adults ages 19 through 32 in 2014, using questionnaires to determine social media use. The questionnaires asked about the 11 most popular social media platforms at the time: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, and LinkedIn.
Investigators cross-referenced those results with the results of another questionnaire that used established screening tools to assess eating disorder risk.
Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other clinical and mental health issues where people have a distorted body image and disordered eating. These issues disproportionately affect adolescents and young adults.
The 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 their peers who spent less time on social media.
Furthermore, participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had 2.6 times the risk, compared with those who checked least frequently.
Senior author Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D., assistant vice chancellor for health and society in Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences, noted that the analysis could not determine whether social media use was contributing to eating and body image concerns or vice versa — or both.
Previous research has shown that people tend to post images online that present themselves positively. For example, users are likely to select the scant few that may make them appear thinner from hundreds of more “accurate” photographs of themselves, resulting in others being exposed to unrealistic expectations for their appearance.
“More research is needed in order to develop effective interventions to counter social media content that either intentionally or unintentionally increases the risk of eating disorders in users,” said Sidani.