A recent review of scientific literature has found that social media use is associated with body image concerns and eating disorders among young people.
The authors of the review suggest that a “self-perpetuating cycle of risk” could be responsible, as vulnerable teens and young adults succumb to online pressures.
The study found that women, people with higher body weights, and those with preexisting body image concerns were more at risk.
However, social media literacy and strong body appreciation were identified as factors that may protect users against the potential harms of social media use.
The review, which analyzed 50 studies from 17 mostly high-income countries, was published in PLOS Global Public Health.
Social Media Tied to Eating Disorders
According to a new review published in PLOS Global Public Health, social media use has been linked to body image concerns and eating disorders in young people. However, the review suggests that a “self-perpetuating cycle of risk” could be to blame instead of social media being the direct cause of these issues.
Vulnerable teens and young adults succumbing to online pressures could be driving this cycle. The review found that young women, people with higher body weights, and those with preexisting body image concerns were at higher risk of the potential harms of social media use.
Nevertheless, social media literacy and strong body appreciation were identified as “moderators” that may protect users against ill effects.
Komal Bhatia, a research fellow in adolescent health at University College London, who led the study, highlighted that social media platforms, despite being largely unregulated, are accessed by roughly half of the world’s population, or about 4 billion people.
The studies analyzed in the review were conducted between 2016 and 2021 and included 50 studies from 17 mostly high-income countries, such as the United States, Australia, Canada, and European nations.
The studies included participants between the ages of 10 and 24 years, with half of them focusing solely on girls. In about three-quarters of the studies, the majority of participants were white. The review noted that most of the studies took place in wealthy countries, indicating a need for more research in lower-income nations.
Impact of #Fitspiration Trend on Eating Disorders
A review of eight studies on the impact of the #fitspiration trend found mixed results. Half of the studies supported the relationship between the trend and the development of eating disorders, while 25% partly supported it and another 25% refuted it.
The research revealed that while some individuals were inspired to adopt healthy eating and exercise habits, others felt pressure to engage in excessive exercise, leading to consuming excessive eating and disordered eating outcomes.
Additionally, a mixed methods study conducted on Instagram found that 17.7% of users were at risk of developing an eating disorder. These findings highlight the need for greater awareness and education around the potential negative impacts of #fitspiration trends on vulnerable individuals.
#Thinspiration trend on social media and its impact
According to three studies, the #thinspiration trend promoted starvation as a lifestyle choice rather than a symptom of mental illness. These posts gave guidance for negative eating disorder behaviors and included tips on how to hide them.
One cross-sectional study found that 96% of participants followed the thin-ideal on social media, of whom 86% met the criteria for a clinical or subclinical eating disorder.
Researchers from University College London also identified several factors that contribute to the social media pathology connection.
Today’s parents grew up in heavily regulated media environments and may assume that current social media follows similar guidelines.
However, social media use among a developmentally susceptible age group is largely unregulated and unprecedented. The study emphasizes the alarming plausible link between social media, body image dissatisfaction, and eating disorders.
Experts warn of social media’s link to youth mental health crisis
Adults have increasingly placed blame on social media and the internet for the growing youth mental health crisis. School districts are suing big tech companies, and Meta (formerly Facebook) admitted last year that Instagram can be harmful to teen girls.
Experts, such as Amanda Raffoul of Harvard Medical School, are calling for more transparency regarding algorithm-driven processes that can lead young users from “healthy snacking” to “take this diet pill.”
Research investigating the links between social media and eating disorders suggests that there is not yet enough evidence to determine whether social media causes disordered eating and negative body image. Eating disorders are complex, with risk factors that include genetics, social environments, personality traits, and more.
However, a recent review by Komal Bhatia and Alexandra Dane of the Institute for Global Health at University College London found that children and young adults who are more concerned with appearance might be more likely to seek out social media pages and influencers that reflect that interest.
The review also found that women, people with higher body weights, and those with preexisting body image concerns were more at risk for the potential harms of social media use.
While it’s unclear whether eating disorders and body image concerns are more prevalent now, the social focus on physical appearance as a strong element of social capital has increased, and the desirable appearance has become less attainable.
These factors may contribute to the rise in youth mental health issues related to body image and eating disorders.
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