Are social media and eating disorders linked?

The past decade has seen a saturation of studies world-wide considering the link between eating disorders and social media. As social networking sites advance across Africa, the topic takes on new relevance: does social media cause eating disorders?

In 2010, a study by researchers at the University of Harvard conducted in secluded communities on the island of Fiji found that those young girls exposed to media imagery of women were 60 percent more likely to develop eating disorders than those without access to the same content. Furthermore, the research found that girls transmitted negative self images around a social network.

Even those girls without access to media images experienced some of the same effects in terms of developing a negative self-image through information from media-exposed members of their social group.

Only last year, a study by the University of Haifa concluded that adolescent girls who use Facebook are more likely than non-users to develop negative self-images, images which in turn may lead to the outbreak of eating disorders – in particular, anorexia, bulimia, and exaggerated dieting.

A further study by the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in the United States reported that of 600 interviewees, over half reported that Facebook impacted their self-consciousness with regard to appearance and weight – with men reporting the biggest impact.

The argument suggests that the high prevalence of access to images of overly thin women on social media networking sights, as well as the constant commentary and comparison of images between peers, leads to an inflated role of image in a social media user’s life, with particular (often unattainable) body images being held up as the acceptable norm.

In an African context, this could spell trouble. While there were no reports of eating disorders among black African adolescents prior to 1995, in 2002 a study by the University of Zululand in South Africa blamed the increasing prevalence of Western images of extremely thin women for the results of a survey carried out at the university, where more than half of the interviewed women said they were unhappy with their body image. Incidences of eating disorders among the black population have continued since then, with confirmed reports of illnesses in South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria.

Social media use on the rise in Africa. Facebook recently recorded 5 million users on the continent, 2go has amassed 20 million followers and Mxit claim 50 million users – if social media is to blame for the Western boom in eating disorders, Africa may have to face a storm over the next years as Internet and social media penetration increases.

However, opposing claims suggest that to blame eating disorders on social media is simplistic – given that a number of underlying issues in fact give rise to the group of illnesses. Susan Ringwood, Chief Executive of UK Charity Beat, explained the factors to the Huffington Post UK, saying: “Genetics, brain chemistry, brain structure and the role of hormones are all in the mix. So is the social and cultural environment, and while the social influence can be significant, its biology that loads the gun, culture pulls the trigger.”

She added: “While societal pressure can’t be seen as the direct cause of a rise in eating disorders (any more than any other single factor can), it is the risk factor that we can do the most to reduce, alleviate and challenge.”

Whichever stance one takes on the role in causation of social media, what is certain is that countries across Africa need to wise-up to the eating disorder trend that plagues the Western world. Africa should continue to promote healthy bodies as the most desirable, but equally, effective education and support networks need to be put in place, to ensure that the cultural and social environment is one that does not cater to the weaknesses of those challenged by a biological tendency towards eating disorders.

Posted in: Social Media

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