Is Facebook contributing to eating disorders?

Study shows that young women felt bad about their looks after comparing themselves with other women on social media -- or at least a carefully curated version of other women.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

Too much time on Facebook can affect body image, says a new study from Florida State University. Flickr,Tanel Teemusk

Over the years, Facebook has been blamed for depression, isolation, jealousy, and various other types of emotional dissatisfaction. Now a researcher has delivered another possible reason to "dislike" using the social-media site: it might contribute to eating disorders.

Pamela K. Keel, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, made that determination after surveying 960 college-aged women. Keel divided the students into two groups: one group spent 20 minutes in their own Facebook universe, and the other read about the ocelot on Wikipedia, then watched a video clip about the adorable rainforest cat on YouTube. Both groups of students were instructed not to browse other Web sites.

"Women who spent 20 minutes on Facebook reported greater maintenance of weight and shape concerns and greater increases in anxiety compared to women in the control condition, which demonstrates that Facebook is influencing well-established eating disorder risk factors," Keel told Crave. Her results were published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders in a paper titled "Do You 'Like' My Photo? Facebook Use Maintains Eating Disorder Risk."

Keel believes the reason eating-disorder risk factors increased in women who spent time on Facebook was that they compared themselves with the way other women looked -- or least a carefully presented version of the way other women looked. Peer influences and traditional media are both known risk factors for disordered eating.

"Now it's not the case that the only place you're seeing thin and idealized images of women in bathing suits is on magazine covers," Keel said in a statement. "Now your friends are posting carefully curated photos of themselves on their Facebook page that you're being exposed to constantly. It represents a very unique merging of two things that we already knew could increase risk for eating disorders."

This isn't the first time it's been postulated that Facebook can lead to comparison fever with negative effects. Last year, researchers at two German universities found that time on the social media site -- especially time spent viewing other people's vacation photos -- triggered envy and an overall dissatisfaction with life.

In Keel's study, the women who seemed most affected by their time on Facebook were those who placed greater importance on getting more likes and comments on their posts and those who were most likely to untag photos of themselves. Keel's advice for women who fall into this category? "Consider what it is you are pursuing when you post on Facebook," she said. "Try to remember that you are a whole person and not an object," she said, "so don't display yourself as a commodity that then can be approved or not approved."

Either that, or spend more time researching the ocelot.