NEW YORK - Social media that emphasises sharing and commenting on photos and other images may feed the anxieties of young women with eating disorders, according to US researchers.
In experiments with a group of female college students, those who logged into their Facebook accounts were more likely to worry about their weight and body shape afterward, compared to women who read online articles about a neutral topic.
For those working on treatment and prevention of eating disorders, the effects of spending time on Facebook may be a factor to take into account, the study team suggests.
"We've done research on peer influences in other contexts - this is the first time we've looked at social media use," Pamela Keel told Reuters Health.
Keel is a researcher and director of clinical training at the Florida State University Department of Psychology in Tallahassee. She oversaw the study that was led by student Annalise Mabe.
The idea for the new study started when Mabe wondered if Facebook use could be related to how women feel about their weight, their body shape and their eating, Keel said.
Some previous research had indicated links between Facebook use and disordered eating, Keel said, but "nothing had really examined whether that meant that Facebook could in some way be contributing to eating disorder risk, so we decided to look at it."
In the first part of the study, 960 students answered survey questions on their attitudes about dieting and their eating behaviours. They were also asked about the amount of time they spent on Facebook.
About 96 per cent of the women used Facebook, and on average, they spent a total of about two hours a week on the site.
The young women whose questionnaire answers indicated disordered eating attitudes and behaviours were somewhat more likely to spend more time on Facebook, the researchers found.
"When you find that kind of association, you can't be sure whether somehow the time spent on Facebook is an eating disorder risk or it could also be that women who have higher concerns of weight and shape and are more concerned about their eating are more drawn to spending time on Facebook," Keel said.
"So the second study was really what makes an important contribution in this area because it represented an experiment in which we could demonstrate whether or not Facebook use had any causal effect on eating disorder risk factors," she added.
The researchers identified 84 women from the earlier survey who used Facebook more than two hours a week and randomly assigned them to one of two groups.
In one group, each of the participants was instructed to log into her Facebook account and spend 20 minutes on the site doing whatever she normally would. Members of the comparison group spent 20 minutes on the Web reading Wikipedia articles and watching YouTube videos about ocelots.
After the online sessions, all the participants were asked to answer the questionnaires again, along with questions about their Facebook use and surveys about their attitudes toward eating and dieting.