Eating Disorders

Facebook users may be at a greater risk for eating disorders, according to a new study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Researchers led by a team from Florida State University looked at data from 960 college-aged women and found that those who spent more time on the social network were also at risk for disordered eating. The women who coveted “likes” on their statuses—and those who untagged unflattering photos of themselves—as well as those who compared their photos to images their friends posted had the highest incidence of eating disorders.

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The study is the first to show that spending just 20 minutes a day on Facebook adds to a woman’s risk for an eating disorder by reinforcing issues pertaining to weight and by boosting anxiety. 

Pamela K. Keel, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Florida State, said that Facebook presents a new avenue of risk for eating disorders. In the study, more than 95 percent of women said they used Facebook multiple times per day.

“The ability to post and view photos on Facebook appears to be important to how college women use the site,” she said. Over two thirds of study participants said they spent most of their time on Facebook looking at photos.

Receiving comments on photos, untagging photos, and looking at friends' photos were all significantly associated with higher levels of disordered eating. The desire for comments and "likes" on posted statuses indicates that being acknowledged and assessed by others are also factors at play in disordered eating.

“Eating disorders are associated with the highest rates of mortality of any psychiatric illness,” Keel said.

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Facebook Photos: An Unrealistic Ideal?

Adrienne Juarascio, an assistant research professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said that Facebook presents a huge risk factor for those who are prone to eating issues.

Social media sites expose users to carefully crafted images of peers, and users who are vulnerable to body comparison can easily use these images as a way of critiquing their own bodies, she said. “The fact that these images are of peers rather than of famous models or actors and are also so easily accessible can facilitate unhelpful comparisons,” Juarascio added.

She says that many people who are dissatisfied with their bodies are also looking for ways to compare themselves, and social media can feed that need.

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Stacey Rosenfeld, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York and California and author of Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? added that most Facebook users post only the best, most flattering pictures of themselves. This means that those with eating disorders are comparing themselves to others' best-edited selves.

“Many of my patients with eating disorders are threatened by the power of Facebook,” said Rosenfeld. “They're concerned when they go to events that pictures of them will be tagged by others for all the world to see. Some even choose to avoid social events because of this threat.”

She explains that Facebook feeds often read like diet directives to those with eating issues. “Friends post on their weight loss victories, their marathon training, the cleanses, diets, and juicing they're trying—all of this can be triggering for those susceptible to disordered eating,” she said.

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Another Online Trap: 'Food Porn'

In addition to photos of people, Facebook is also a haven for photos of food, something that Rosenfeld refers to as “food porn.”

“There are competing messages on Facebook,” she explained. “Enjoy and indulge in all this delicious food but post pretty pictures and be as thin as these ads say you should be. These kinds of message seem to promote disordered eating.”

On the flip side, Facebook can be a valuable tool to fight back against eating disorders. Many people and groups are using the social network to promote body acceptance and non-dieting approaches to weight loss.

Keeping in mind the dangers of using the network, people can still reap the benefits of connecting with others online.

“Consider what it is you are pursuing when you post on Facebook,” Keel 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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