Socializing to Be Thin: Facebook Linked to Eating Disorders

Facebook raises risk of eating disorders in teenage girls

Posted Jun 21, 2011

Eating disorders are a hot topic of discussion among parents and teens of all ages. From office water coolers to school locker rooms, rumor and innuendo become reality as many of us realize that everybody knows somebody with an eating disorder. Teenagers are the most vulnerable population and comprise the highest number of eating disorders with over 40% of newly identified cases of anorexia and bulimia appearing in girls ages 15-19 annually. The exact cause of eating disorders is debatable but most mental health professionals agree that it's a combination of factors including genetic predisposition, comorbid mental health disorders, social environment, and cultural and family influences.

Facebook Raises Risk of Eating Disorders

A recently published study by researchers at the University of Haifa found that teenage girls who frequent Facebook are more likely to develop a negative body image that can result in the onset of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and exaggerated dieting. Additionally, adolescent girls exhibited lower levels of personal empowerment and self confidence. These findings suggest that social networking sites play as vital a role in the prevalence of eating disorders as traditional media outlets such as magazines, TV, and print ads.

In many ways the research makes perfect sense. American culture is notorious for emphasizing superficial beauty that is often reinforced by advertising and mass media. Exposure to celebrities and ultra thin supermodels in traditional media outlets like billboards and TV have long since been proven to decrease girls self esteem. Facebook, as a form of online media, follows suit in continuing the cultural trend of exposing teenage girls to unrealistic images and information that entices them to diet as a way to achieve the perfect slim body. What many teenage girls and adult don't realize is that the average woman in the United States is 5'4" and weighs 140 lbs. whereas the average runway model is 5'11 and weighs a mere 117 lbs. This study implies that Facebook is yet another form of mass media that subtly chips away at teenage girls self-esteem.

Facebook:  Evil-Doer or Sign of the Times?

Do you remember when you were a teen and you'd pass those life-altering, gossipy notes to your best friend in class? For teens growing up in today's society socializing is kind of like that- only digital. Generation Y is the most technologically advanced group of teens in the history of the United States, and for that reason, I'd like to give Facebook a break. I'll admit that Facebook is ripe with its own set of controversy, accountability, and cyber issues, but I'm not ready to condemn it just yet. If people respond emotionally to every research study published, then teenagers as well as adults would not be able to do, see, or react to anything- online or off- without fear of harm. Let's not forget that Facebook has opened many doors for people across the world to reconnect with friends, share photos, relive long forgotten memories, and to live richer lives by maintaining relationships that once may have faltered with the passing of time. With over 500 million active users worldwide in 70 translations, it's actually surprising when you hear someone you know is not on Facebook. Facebook may be many things to many people, but inherently evil is not one of them.

It's true that Facebook is responsible for contributing to the media-obsessed culture that can lead to eating disorders, but probably no more so than when your teenage daughter watches Gossip Girl, America's Next Top Model, or MTV's 16 and Pregnant. Negative media images are everywhere, including online, and research has shown that teenage girls who watch gossip TV programs are equally at risk of developing an eating disorder. There is no question that media is responsible for bombarding girls with unrealistic images of beauty and creating a culture that thrives on external rather than internal beauty, but parents also shoulder some of the responsibility. The same study by the University of Haifa found that parents who are involved in their teens media habits and discussed activities with them can actually help increase their daughter's self-empowerment. This positive shift in self-worth can serve as a buffer to help safeguard teens against the lure of eating disorders. Parents have more power than they think when it comes to helping their daughters prevent severe behavioral disorders and, in particular, eating disorders.

Let's Get Real

Increasing your teens self empowerment and decreasing her chances of developing an eating disorder doesn't mean you have to control every move she makes. In fact, maintaining control of your teen at all times is near impossible even if you tried. The truth is that excessive over-protectiveness and parental suffocation will only serve to develop animosity and distrust within your relationship. Freedom and testing boundaries is important and necessary for teens to mature into healthy adults. For most parents, it's the issue of striking a balance between control and independence that is often the most difficult. While Facebook provides yet another challenge in the world of eating disorders and teens, it also provides an important opportunity -  a chance to have a conversation with your teen that is non-threatening, open, and that can serve to inspire and empower her.

About the Author

Elizabeth Donovan, M.A., is a psychotherapist and writer. Her work has appeared in magazines including BabyTalk, Parents, and Parenting.

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