What Is the Link Between the Media and Eating Disorders?

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Eating disorders and disordered eating are common among young people. Recent research suggests that as many as one in five children and adolescents across the world may show signs of disordered eating. Eating disorders are serious conditions that can affect a young person’s mood, health, relationships, school life, and other aspects of their well-being.

There’s no single cause of eating problems. Lots of different factors, including genetics, home environment, and self-esteem may contribute to the development of disordered eating.

In recent years, experts have looked into how the media affects the way young people see themselves, their bodies, and their relationship with food. Films, TV, the internet, and magazines have a powerful presence across the world, conveying ideas and ideals to young people that influence the way they think and behave. Research has found that the media may play a central role in increasing body dissatisfaction in teenagers and adolescents, making the development of eating disorders more likely.

This blog explores the link between media and eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, and ideals of beauty. It also offers information on how young people can recover from eating problems and reclaim fulfilling futures.

What Are Eating Problems?

It’s normal for young people to eat in different ways. They may go through phases of eating more or less – or preferring different types of food. Eating problems develop when a young person’s relationship with food starts to take over their daily life, affecting their ability to feel good or do the things they care about. 

Eating problems can look very different from young person to the next. They may involve things like:

  • using food to cope with difficult emotions
  • fear of gaining weight
  • restricting or controlling their diet
  • feeling unable to stop themselves from eating

A young person may be diagnosed with an eating disorder when their eating problems fit into a certain set of criteria, such as those set out in the DSM-5. There are several types of eating disorders, including:

  • anorexia nervosa
  • bulimia nervosa
  • binge eating disorder
  • unspecified feeding or eating disorder

While diagnoses can be a helpful tool in the treatment process, eating problems can still be very serious even when they don’t fit the criteria for an eating disorder. Anyone can be affected by eating disorders, regardless of their gender, age, background, and body shape. It’s important to take any concerns about a young person’s eating seriously so that they can receive the care and support they deserve.

What Is Body Dissatisfaction?

Body dissatisfaction is when someone has negative thoughts and feelings about their body image. These thoughts may involve the size of their body or its shape or muscularity.

Research has found that body dissatisfaction can play a big role in the development of eating disorders. Body dissatisfaction is linked to several symptoms of disordered eating, such as a drive for thinness and dieting behaviours. Among young people who identify as men, body dissatisfaction often centres around perceptions of muscularity and leanness.

The Media and Body Ideals

Children and adolescents today live in a world flooded by mass media. They’re surrounded by billboards, films, magazines, music, TV, and social media. 

The media shapes and conveys certain ideals about beauty. These ideals have changed over time, but they usually portray an idea of perfection – a single ‘most desirable’ way for a person to look or to be. While celebrations of diversity and body positivity are becoming more common, they rarely dominate other ideals.

Towards the end of the last century, the cultural ideal for women’s body size became considerably smaller, and the ideal for men’s bodies became stronger and more muscular. From 1978 to 1998 there was a big decrease in the weight and size and models, with 70% of the women being underweight. There was also an increased focus on fitness, linked to smaller body size and lower body weight.

These cultural standards convey to young people a body ideal that is often both unrealistic and unhealthy. Body dissatisfaction develops when there is a difference between someone’s actual body and what they perceive as the ideal body. When body ideals are homogenous and unrealistic, most young people will experience a difference between their actual and ideal bodies. They may explain, in part, why so many teenagers and adolescents are dissatisfied with their own body shape and want to change the way that their body looks.

The Media, Body Dissatisfaction, and Disordered Eating Behaviours

Many young people across the gender spectrum have negative thoughts and feelings about their body image. A study among people who identified as female explored how exposure to images of small bodies affected how they perceived their own bodies. They found that individuals’ body image was more negative after seeing images of small bodies than images of other bodies or inanimate objects. Young women below the age of 19 were particularly affected.

Other studies have explored the link between exposure to media and symptoms of eating disorders, such as a drive for thinness, dieting, and purging behaviours. One study found that girls between the ages of 9 and 14 who were trying to look like women on television, films, or magazines were more likely to start engaging in purging behaviours. Another study among college students found that those who used the media were more likely to have a drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction and ineffectiveness in women, and endorsement of personal thinness and dieting in men.

Social Media and Body Image

Social media is a big part of the lives of many children, teenagers, and adolescents. On social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, young people see photos and read stories about celebrities, ‘influencers’, and friends, as well as posting about themselves.

As with other forms of media, social media can have a significant effect on how young people think and feel about their bodies. Social media use is consistently linked to negative body image.

Research has found that taking and editing (but not posting) photos can make individuals feel worse about their bodies. Even positive comments may have negative consequences, intensifying the effects of idealised content on young people. Visual platforms like Instagram cause more harm to someone’s body image than more text-based platforms.

Experts also looked into the effects of more positive content on social media, such as fitspiration, disclaimer labels, and body positivity. They found that only content promoting body positivity improved individuals’ body image.

The Media and Eating Disorders: Moving Towards Positive Change

Young people are particularly affected by the ideas they see in the media. Changing the way that young people see themselves and their bodies will involve changing the ideals conveyed by the media and the way that young people understand what they see.

Certain steps can be taken that may reduce the effect that media ideals have on young people’s mental health. These include:

  • media literacy – a process of understanding mass media that helps young people see the media and its ideals more critically
  • media advocacy – using media to promote healthy ways of thinking that challenge mainstream beauty ideals, such as body positivity campaigns
  • parent education – teaching parents skills to evaluate media content more critically
  • replacing social media content – encouraging young people to follow more positive accounts, rather than ones that may glamorise eating disorders

Eating Disorders Treatment and Recovery

Living with an eating disorder can make daily life hard – and sometimes feel almost impossible. For young people with eating problems, it’s important to remember that they are not alone. With effective treatment and long-term support, young people can rebuild a positive relationship with food and with their bodies. 

There are several different treatment approaches that can help young people recover from eating disorders. Many individuals benefit from a combination of different treatments. 

Some treatment options include:

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT-E)
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Psychodynamic therapy
  • Family therapy

The most useful types of therapy vary from one young person to the next. As part of the treatment process, young people will work with mental health professionals and other experts to develop a treatment plan that works best for them.

The Wave: Transformative Recovery Programs for Young People

The Wave offers specialist treatment for young people with eating disorders and other mental health concerns. Our programs offer a balance of therapy, nutrition, skills building, experiences, and education, helping young people reconnect with themselves and their love of life. We support young people to leave our centre ready to enjoy life and pursue their dreams, without the distress of living with an eating disorder.

Our specialised programs provide expert care for young people at different levels of risk. Our specialist medical team work alongside psychologists and other mental health experts to keep young people safe and help them become well again. 

We understand that many different issues can play a role in maintaining eating disorders. Our programs support young people to address underlying feelings and experiences like perfectionism, trauma, and anxiety through different kinds of therapy and experiential techniques.

If you want to learn more about our eating disorders program or other mental health treatment, contact us today. We’re here to help.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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