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Mind and body

Study: Facebook use can encourage disordered eating in women

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My friends and I were gossiping on AOL Instant Messenger before we'd lost our baby teeth. We declared preadolescent crushes on Xanga, compared favorite bands on MySpace and angsted over college plans on Facebook.

Although social media has always been a part of our lives, I often have wondered what it might be doing to our lives.

For example: As a freshman at Florida State University, I remember walking back to my dorm on a cold, wet day. I texted my mom to tell her I'd aced a math test. I promised her (again) that I would buy rain boots.

I looked up and noticed something startling enough to still my texting thumbs: Dozens of us were sloshing forward on the same red brick paths, never making eye contact, dodging each other thanks to well-adapted peripheral vision. Faces were obscured by hoods and umbrellas, but lit by glowing smartphones scrolling through texts, music libraries and news feeds.

Were we overly connected? Disconnected? I wanted to know.

• • •

As a sophomore, I began working as a research assistant in psychology professor Pamela Keel's Eating Behaviors Research Clinic. I learned the basic skills involved in running a research project, and by my senior year, Dr. Keel was encouraging me to come up with a study of my own.

My research question came to me immediately: Why are we constantly using Facebook and how is it affecting us?

We narrowed the focus to how Facebook use affects college women, including women with disordered eating.

That question led to a paper published this year in the International Journal of Eating Disorders that Dr. Keel and I authored with FSU doctoral student Jean Forney, "Do You 'Like' My Photo? Facebook Use Maintains Eating Disorder Risk.''

It also led me to confront my own mixed feelings about Facebook.

• • •

To clarify, the term disordered eating does not mean eating disorder. Disordered eating is a spectrum, ranging from few or no issues with weight and food to potentially severe disorders such as bulimia and anorexia.

Being preoccupied with thoughts of weight, shape and negative body image can be symptoms of disordered eating. Not surprisingly, disordered eating affects a lot of people, especially young women. In recent years, research has found that up to 94 percent of women in their first year of college reported wanting to weigh less, regardless of whether they were overweight.

I didn't need a scientific study to tell me this, however.

I heard the evidence all the time on campus from girls who would show each other Facebook posts and say things like, "Did you see how many 'likes' she has on her profile picture? I wish I looked that good."

I saw the proof in friends who posted status updates about their own gym workouts, and praised others' thin figures.

In a situation custom-made for a student of human behavior, I also worked at a bakery. Countless 20-year-olds would come to the counter, point out the cupcake they wanted and plead, "Don't judge me!"

All of them, I realized, had issues with food and weight — disordered eating.

• • •

At 19, my own Facebook feed often featured photos of friends in scanty swimsuits, revealing club dresses and cute Nike workout gear.

"Just finished a 5K in record time!" chirped one friend.

I like to think I have a healthy relationship with food and weight, but I do recall sitting in my comfy pajamas, contemplating a nice slice of pizza, when that 5K post rolled across my screen. "I should really get to the gym today'' was my reaction.

What if, I hypothesized, Facebook use not only reflects disordered eating, but also encourages it?

Of course, just because something happens on Facebook doesn't prove that Facebook caused it. So we set out to do a pretty simple experimental study.

We randomly divided our participants, college women ages 18 to 25, into two groups and invited them into the computer lab. One group logged in to their Facebook accounts and read their feeds. The other group used their computers to learn about the ocelot, a rain forest animal.

Participants had low, medium or high levels of disordered eating and were given questionnaires before and after their Internet use about what they saw online and how they felt about it.

Nearly 92 percent of the women had a smartphone, and nearly all of those who did had the Facebook app so they could check their feeds anywhere they went.

Most of the Facebook users said they'd rather check photos than do anything else on the site.

As we suspected, the study showed that the more preoccupied a woman was with body and food issues, the more she cared about getting comments on her status updates and photos. Those with greater levels of disordered eating also were more likely to "untag'' themselves — detaching their names from photos posted by others. They also were more interested in comparing their photos to those of their female friends.

By contrast, spending time learning about ocelots dramatically decreased participants' anxiety and preoccupation with weight and shape, we found.

• • •

Our hypothesis turned out to be correct. Facebook use did not create body and eating issues, but it kept them going.

Using Facebook maintained a state of anxiety and preoccupation with weight and shape, whether a woman had a high level of disordered eating or only mild issues.

This information could be helpful in treating women with disordered eating, as well as reaching girls who are at risk of developing body issues.

We're not advocating getting rid of social media, but rather, using it thoughtfully.

''Consider what it is you are pursuing when you post on Facebook," Dr. Keel has advised. "Try to remember that you are a whole person and not an object, so don't display yourself as a commodity that then can be approved or not approved."

How my friends and I use Facebook has evolved, along with our lives. Some of us are getting married, starting families, traveling or embarking on careers. At 23, I'm a lot less likely to face a pizza-versus-workout crisis over Facebook than I was at 19.

But at any age, girls and women can find themselves in a Facebook environment where people seem more interested in flaunting their image than their friendship. I've deleted the Facebook app on my own smartphone about 10 times — and then downloaded it again the next day. I think sometimes about what it would be like to escape any online personality and live solely in the real, present world.

Yet I always come back online to see friends and family interacting and sharing with each other and the wider world. It's a well-working, aesthetically appealing and easily accessible place I don't want to leave. So, in regards to my relationship with Facebook, well, it's complicated.

Annalise G. Mabe is a graduate of Gaither High School in Tampa as well as Florida State. She is returning to school this fall to seek a master's degree.

Study: Facebook use can encourage disordered eating in women 04/03/14 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2014 5:23pm]
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