Social media influences so many aspects of our lives that it’s no surprise that it also impacts how — and why — we eat.
But long before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, our social lives had huge consequences on what we ate.
I can remember as a teen huddled around the lunch table in the school cafeteria with my group of friends, talking about who was dating who, who wanted to date who, and the occasional “what IS she wearing?”
As each of us got asked out in turn by our crushes, we would spend that time obsessing about what the date would be like. I distinctly remembering a few of us coming to a solemn agreement on what to eat at the post-football game date at the local pizza place Dino’s.
“Oh no, you can’t have onions!” I remember my best friend telling me as I considered what to order on my pizza.
“What if he wants to kiss you?”
And while that was innocuous, there were other discussions that had much more dire consequences: Girls who felt perpetually fat, even though they were barely eating a thing, or admiration for the girl who dropped more than 20 pounds over Christmas break — a mere two weeks.
While she was seen as a hero by many of the other girls for this stupendous achievement, it actually set her up for a lifetime of yo-yo dieting, with weeks of deprivation followed by weeks of indulgence.
Of course, we only had to worry about the small group of people in our suburban high school.
Today kids have the entire world at their fingertips, thanks to the myriad social media sites they seem to incessantly visit.
And as social media use grows, so does the risk of these young adults developing eating disorders and concerns about body image.
This is only exacerbated by the intense media spotlight on celebrities and reality TV stars, who always seem to be rail thin.
“We’ve long known that exposure to traditional forms of media, such as fashion magazines and television, is associated with the development of disordered eating and body image concerns, likely due to the positive portrayal of ‘thin’ models and celebrities,” said Jaime E. Sidani, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant director of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health. “Social media combines many of the visual aspects of traditional media with the opportunity for social media users to interact and propagate stereotypes that can lead to eating and body image concerns.”
For the study, Sidani and her colleagues surveyed 1,765 adults in the United States between the ages of 19 and 32 in 2014, using questionnaires to determine social media use. The questionnaires asked about the 11 most popular social media platforms at the time: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.
They then cross-referenced those results with the results of another questionnaire that used established screening tools to assess eating disorder risk.
Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and other clinical and mental health issues where people have a distorted body image and disordered eating. These issues disproportionately affect adolescents and young adults, the researchers noted.
The participants who spent the most time on social media throughout the day had 2.2 times the risk of reporting eating and body image concerns, compared to their peers who spent less time on social media.
And participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had 2.6 times the risk, compared with those who checked least frequently.
But the analysis couldn’t determine whether social media use was contributing to eating and body image concerns or vice versa — or both, noted senior author Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D., assistant vice chancellor for health and society in Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences.
“It could be that young adults who use more social media are exposed to more images and messages that encourage development of disordered eating,” he said.
The analysis did find that gender, age, race and income did not influence the association — which means that all demographic groups were equally affected by the link between social media and eating and body image concerns, the researchers said.
That means preventative messages should target a broad population, they advise.
NOT ALL BAD NEWS
But while social media and influence has its dark side, it also can be used to encourage healthy eating behaviors among young people.
A study from the University of Birmingham in England found that exposing students to social-based messages can increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables, while reducing their consumption of high-calorie snacks.
The study builds on the fact that people adapt their behavior to what they think is socially expected for each situation — and food choices are no exception.
That means, if we are told — and believe — that other people in our social group eat lots of fruit and vegetables, then we may try to do the same.
To test this theory, the researchers brought student volunteers into a laboratory and asked them to rate some posters. One group saw a poster displaying the results of a survey suggesting that the typical student enjoys eating fruit and vegetables every day, while a control group saw a poster that displayed unrelated facts about the University of Birmingham.
The participants were then asked to take part in another study that involved rating emotions and tasting some healthy snacks — cucumber and grapes — and high calorie snacks — cookies and chips.
The students who saw the posters about other students who liked to eating fruit and vegetables ate more of the cucumber and grapes during the taste test — but only if they did not report habitually consuming a lot of fruit and vegetables in their daily diet already, the researchers reported.
Those who already ate fruit and vegetables daily did not consume any more cucumber and grapes, however, they ate less of the cookies and chips.
Interestingly, most people were not even aware that the two studies were linked and were not aware that their behavior had been altered by exposure to the message, the researchers noted.
According to the researchers, the study’s findings point towards a new approach to promoting healthier eating.
“It might be more effective in terms of health promotion to highlight how much other people enjoy eating fruit and vegetables than to tell people that they should because it is good for them,” said Dr. Jason Thomas.