Are Eating Disorders Contagious?

Social Media’s Role in Our Obsession for Thinness

Teen girl at a computer.The media barrages us with images on a daily basis. That, we know. Flip on the TV, go online, even stand in line at the grocery checkout and see if you can avoid the not-so-subtle suggestions to lose weight, cut cravings, and, overall, improve your general happiness and quality of life—fast and simple. 

Each day, on average, we’re exposed to about 5,000 advertising messages a day. That’s a lot. Considering that the images winking on-screen or sedately stacked at the checkout counter significantly shape our views on beauty and body image, all this exposure has to be making an effect.   

But can logging into Facebook be a new culprit in the media medley?

The Discreet Disorder

Bulimia. Anorexia. Binge eating disorder. You may know someone who has struggled with one. Or, possibly have struggled with one yourself. Though eating disorder incidence has risen, the disorders are tricky to diagnose.  

Floating in our contemporary subconscious, eating disorders have long been synonymous with obsessions with perfection, “attention-seeking” behavior, and vanity. No longer considered only an upper-middle class Caucasian female concern, eating disorders spare no one, affecting the very young and the very old, from grade-schoolers to seniors, and everyone in between.

Women are more commonly affected by eating disorders, but men battle with them too. The facts, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): nearly 10 million females and one million males struggle with eating disorders in the United States. This doesn’t include the millions more who battle with binge eating disorder.

But it is mainly a silent battle. Many patients remain undiagnosed because they hide the behavior out of shame. Or, simply don’t recognize that they’re not well.

Online Peer Pressure

So what’s the cause? Genes? Societal pressures? Celebrity fixations? Social media? Frustrating as it is, science has yet to unravel the mystery behind eating disorders, although doctors have been able to identify that eating disorders follow a pattern, similar to obsessive compulsive disorder.

Certainly, there has been a shift in what constitutes an ideal body image. Constant media hype helps to perpetuate this obsession: Celebrities get thinner. Fad diets splash onto the scene, replaced faster than our fickle minds can read about them. Ads convince us of our shortcomings, preying on—or perpetuating—the obsession for perfection. In fact, a recent Yoplait yogurt ad was pulled after a request from NEDA to General Mills.

According to Craig Johnson, PhD, chief clinical officer of the Eating Discovery Center (ERC) in Denver, CO, this quest for thinness is “contagious.” Behaviorally, at least.

A recent study from the University of Haifa supports this hypothesis, linking Facebook with eating disorders. Researchers reported that “results showed that the more time girls spend on Facebook, the more they suffered conditions of bulimia, anorexia, physical dissatisfaction, negative physical self-image, negative approach to eating and more of an urge to be on a weight-loss diet.”

The study followed 248 girls between the ages of 12 and 19. Findings showed that girls who spent more time on Facebook displayed more susceptibility for an eating disorder. Not too surprisingly, more exposure to fashion content in general while online led to higher odds of girls developing anorexia.

Parents, researchers determined, played a major role in guiding their teens toward self-empowerment—and, therefore, the wherewithal to withstand the effects of the image-distorting media barrage. More active parents, who involved themselves in what their child was reading on the Web, had more empowered children. Less involved parents tended to have less empowered teens.

The Cost

Eating disorders are lurking in high school hallways, grade school classrooms, office cubicles, and dorm rooms, affecting children and moms and college students alike. But before treatment can happen, we need to recognize the disorders in the first place.  

There is a strong campaign to end obesity in America. But in order to fight one extreme, are we leading ourselves toward another? We need to challenge beliefs of “ideal” body image and question with a critical eye the role that the media plays in defining self-esteem, as well as learn to recognize potentially harmful and obsessive thoughts or behaviors around fitness and food.

Maybe it’s not so black and white. But can we learn to accept the average gray in between?

For more information, visit the National Eating Disorders Association website. 

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