In experiments with a group of female college
students, those who logged into their Facebook accounts were more
likely to worry about their weight and body shape afterward,
compared to women who read online articles about a neutral topic.
For those working on treatment and prevention of eating disorders,
the effects of spending time on Facebook may be a factor to take
into account, the study team suggests.
"We've done research on peer influences in other contexts — this is
the first time we've looked at social media use," Pamela Keel told
Keel is a researcher and director of clinical training at the
Florida State University Department of Psychology in Tallahassee.
She oversaw the study that was led by student Annalise Mabe.
The idea for the new study started when Mabe wondered if Facebook
use could be related to how women feel about their weight, their
body shape and their eating, Keel said.
Some previous research had indicated links between Facebook use and
disordered eating, Keel said, but "nothing had really examined
whether that meant that Facebook could in some way be contributing
to eating disorder risk, so we decided to look at it."
In the first part of the study, 960 students answered survey
questions on their attitudes about dieting and their eating
behaviors. They were also asked about the amount of time they spent
About 96 percent of the women used Facebook, and on average, they
spent a total of about two hours a week on the site.
The young women whose questionnaire answers indicated disordered
eating attitudes and behaviors were somewhat more likely to spend
more time on Facebook, the researchers found.
"When you find that kind of association, you can't be sure whether
somehow the time spent on Facebook is an eating disorder risk or it
could also be that women who have higher concerns of weight and
shape and are more concerned about their eating are more drawn to
spending time on Facebook," Keel said.
"So the second study was really what makes an important contribution
in this area because it represented an experiment in which we could
demonstrate whether or not Facebook use had any causal effect on
eating disorder risk factors," she added.
The researchers identified 84 women from the earlier survey who used
Facebook more than two hours a week and randomly assigned them to
one of two groups.
In one group, each of the participants was instructed to log into
her Facebook account and spend 20 minutes on the site doing whatever
she normally would. Members of the comparison group spent 20 minutes
on the Web reading Wikipedia articles and watching YouTube videos
After the online sessions, all the participants were asked to answer
the questionnaires again, along with questions about their Facebook
use and surveys about their attitudes toward eating and dieting.
The researchers found that women who had stronger attitudes of
disordered eating tended to place greater importance on receiving
comments and ‘likes' on their Facebook status and photos.
[to top of second column]
Those same participants were more likely to untag photos of
themselves and to compare photos of themselves to pictures of their
female friends more often.
After 20 minutes online, both groups of students were less
preoccupied with weight and body shape, but the women in the
comparison group showed a greater decline in that preoccupation than
the women who spent their time on Facebook, the researchers report
in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
"We did see significant differences in how their disordered
eating risk factors changed after Internet use and that provides a
very strong piece of evidence that Facebook use does influence
eating disorder risk factors," Keel said.
The study has limitations, including the fact that it didn't look at
men, and it's not clear that the decrease in weight and shape
concerns would happen outside of a laboratory setting. The
researchers also can't say whether other social media sites would
have a similar influence.
"This is a very interesting study in part because it brought in the
new element of how social media use can actually impact young
women's perception of their health, specifically in the context of
body image," Yvonne Chen told Reuters Health.
Chen, an assistant professor of strategic communication at the
William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at
the University of Kansas, studies how mass media affects peoples'
decision-making processes, perceptions, attitudes and behavior.
"The authors in the article talked about how Facebook actually is a
risk factor that impacts eating disorders and then in the conclusion
they were quite optimistic that perhaps Facebook could also be used
to promote health," said Chen, who was not involved in the study.
The fact that "Being around peers who are concerned about dieting
and weight increases your own concerns about dieting and weight,
also means that being surrounded by peers who have lower concerns
about dieting and weight and have a greater body acceptance actually
protects you from those problems," Keel noted.
"So I think there's an opportunity to use peer influences in
positive ways that are supportive for young women," she said.
International Journal of Eating Disorders, online Jan. 24, 2014.
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.