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Social Media May Put Some Teens at Risk for Disordered Eating

A new Australian study suggests social media may contribute to leading young adolescent girls and boys down a path of body image issues and eating disorder behaviors. Researchers found that even though teens are smartphone savvy, social media platforms with a strong focus on image posting and viewing are unfortunately the most used and the most risky.

The research found platforms with a strong focus on image posting and viewing such as Instagram and Snapchat are the most used and the most risky.

In the study, Flinders University and the University of Western Australia researchers surveyed 996 seventh and eighth grade ‘middle school’ adolescents on their use of Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr and Snapchat.

They discovered behaviors related to disordered eating were reported by 51.7 percent of girls, and 45 percent of the boys. Common behaviors included strict exercise and meal skipping to lose weight or prevent weight gain.

A total of 75.4 percent of girls and 69.9 percent of boys had at least one social media account, with Instagram the most common. This was despite half the sample being younger than 13-years-old, the recommended minimum age for these platforms.

The more social media accounts, and greater time spent using them, were associated with a higher likelihood of disordered eating thoughts and behaviors, said lead author Dr. Simon Wilksch, senior research fellow in psychology at Flinders University.

The study is believed to be the first to examine the relationship between specific social media platforms and disordered eating behaviors and thoughts in young adolescents.

Wilksch believes the findings are cause for concern. “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,” he said.

“Social media seems to encourage young people to focus strongly on their appearance and the way it is judged or perceived by others.

“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,” Wilksch said.

In an effort to combat teen stress, Wilksch is launching an Australia-wide trial of Media Smart Online program designed to combat such pressures in people of any gender aged between 13 and 25 years old.

The program is backed by positive findings from the first trial with 18-25 year old women where Media Smart Online reduced eating disorder onset by 66 percent (in those not meeting diagnosis at study start point) and increased eating disorder recovery by 75% (for those starting with disordered eating), relative to controls.

A range of other risk factors also improved along with lowering the likelihood of onset of depressive symptoms and thoughts about self-harm.

“We were very pleased with the outcomes of the first trial, and are excited to expand the program to a wider age range and people of any gender in this new research, since we know these concerns are not limited to females,” Wilksch said.

A key message of the program is for young people to “make up their own mind” on what relationship they want to have with social media and how their media use fits with their personal values.

The paper appears in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Source: Flinders University/EurekAlert

Social Media May Put Some Teens at Risk for Disordered Eating

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2019). Social Media May Put Some Teens at Risk for Disordered Eating. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Dec 2019 (Originally: 15 Dec 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Dec 2019
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