Global review shows link between social media use, body image and eating disorders

Body image has remains a top personal concern for young people in Australia, with 76% concerned about the issue. 

Social media use by teens is rising at the same time – with more than 90% on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, WeChat and TikTok.

While there have long been concerns about the association between social media, body image and eating disorders the connection remains relatively unexplored as a public health issue.

Now, researchers from University College London in the UK have undertaken a systematic review of 50 scientific studies across 17 countries showing clear links between social media use and body image concerns.

The paper, published in PLOS Global Public Health, analyses the relationship between body image or eating disorders in young people and social media use. 

The researchers identify specific aspects of social media – platforms with an emphasis on photos, and engaging with “fitspiration” and “thinspiration” trends – as the factors most closely linked to body image concerns, disordered eating and poor mental health.

Other key risk factors included female gender, high body-mass-index and pre-existing body image concerns. 

The researchers note further studies are needed into the direction of causality. 

“For example, do body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating occur because of social media usage, or do these pre-exist, encourage engagement in certain online activities, and result in unfavourable clinically significant outcomes?” they ask.

Read more: How TikTok perpetuates toxic diet culture

Eating disorders involve disturbed attitudes to body image, pre-occupation with weight and body shape and are associated with significant negative outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, reduced bone density, and psychiatric conditions.

In Australia, the Butterfly Foundation reports eating disorders affect around one million people, with the conditions causing more people die each year than the road toll. 

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