Facebook may amplify eating disorders and poor body image

A new study of Facebook users finds that using the social networking site may lead to poor body image and low self esteem, amplifying eating disorders: A majority are more conscious of body and weight.

Thierry Roge/Reuters
A new study by The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt finds that Facebook use may lead to poor body image and low self esteem, amplifying eating disorders.

Facebook may be promoting poor body image among its users, a new report says, with more than half of survey-takers admitting that they feel more conscious of their weight because of the social networking site, and only a quarter saying they are happy with their body.

The report, which was based on an online survey of 600 Facebook users and was conducted by The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore, also found that 32 percent of users feel sad when comparing Facebook photos of themselves to those of their friends, that 37 percent feel they need to change specific parts of their body when comparing their photos to others’, and that 44 percent wish they had the same body or weight as a friend when looking at the photos.
 
 Even doctors at the mental health institution were surprised by the intensity of the survey’s findings. 

 “We’ve known for a long time that people in our culture were dissatisfied with their body,” said Harry Brandt, director of The Center for Eating Disorders. “But the degree of dissatisfaction really surprises me.”  

Dr. Brandt said that while body image problems are nothing new in our society, he and colleagues suspected that Faceook might be amplyifing the obsession with thin. He said they were hearing Facebook-related concerns from many of their eating disorder patients, and decided to commission the research, which polled Facebook users ranging in age from 16 to 40, to find out whether these concerns also existed in the wider population. The results, he said, returned a clear “yes.”

While the studies showed that females were more slightly likely than males to worry about and compare their bodies to their friends', the differences were usually within 10 percentage points; Facebook, it seems, can make everyone insecure.

 “Facebook is making it easier for people to spend more time and energy criticizing their own bodies and wishing they looked like someone else,” he said in a statement released along with the survey. “In this age of modern technology and constant access to SmartPhones and the Internet, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to remove themselves from images and other triggers that promote negative body image, low self-esteem and may ultimately contribute to eating disorders.”
 
 Although the survey respondents ranged in age from 16 to 40, child development experts say this sort of Facebook-induced hyper-awareness of body size is particularly problematic among teens, who are already uniquely attuned to peer opinion.
 
 “Technology is totally embedded into their identities and in how they relate to each other,” says Rachel Simmons, author of “Odd Girl Out: the hidden culture of aggression in girls” and a national expert on girls and technology.
 
 The feedback nature of Facebook works to both shape behavior and create insecurity, Ms. Simmons says. It feels nice when people write positive comments or “like” a photo or status update, she notes. If this happens when a girl posts a provocative photo, or one in which she looks thinner, then it pushes her in that direction in her non-virtual life. At the same time, Simmons says, if a post or photo goes without comment, a teen might start becoming anxious about what other people think.
 
 “It’s the paradox of social media,” Simmons says “On the one hand it makes you feel really, really good, on the other hand it makes you feel really insecure.”
 
 In the Center for Eating Disorders survey, researchers found that 61 percent of respondents agreed that it made them feel good about themselves when a friend commented positively on their photo; at the same time 75 percent of female respondents wanted to lose weight.
 
 Facebook concerns are seeping into real life in other ways, as well, researchers found.

Forty-four percent of respondents said that “they are always conscious when attending social events that photos of them might get posted on Facebook” and 43 percent said they will avoid having their picture taken at a social event.
 
 Brandt says that although researches have not yet stratified their data by age, he suspects that young people – who use Facebook in disproportionately high numbers – might be particularly affected. 

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