Facebook may help you avoid risky dieting behaviours

Washington :College-aged girls with strong emotional connection to Facebook may be less likely to struggle with risky dieting behaviours compared to their peers, according to a new study.

College going girls who are more emotionally invested in Facebook and have lots of friends on the social networking site are less concerned with body size and shape and less likely to engage in risky dieting behaviours, researchers said.

But that’s only if they aren’t using Facebook to compare their bodies to their friends’ bodies, they said.

In the study at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, 128 college-aged women completed an online survey with questions designed to measure their disordered eating.

Researchers asked each woman whether she worried about her weight and shape and whether she engaged in risky behaviours such as using diet pills, vomiting after meals, or going on fasts.

They also asked questions about each woman’s emotional connection to Facebook – her incorporation of the site into their daily life, time spent on the site each day, number of Facebook friends – and whether she compared her body to her friends’ bodies in online pictures.

“We really wanted to examine how each college woman used Facebook when posting pictures online. Is she thinking, ‘I’m posting this picture to share a fun moment with my friends’ or is she thinking ‘I want to post this picture to compare how my body looks to my friends’ bodies,’” said Stephanie Zerwas, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry in the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and senior author of the study.

Because the perceived increase in women struggling with a negative body image is often blamed on the time they spend on social media, the researchers expected to find that greater Facebook intensity and online physical appearance comparison would be associated with greater disordered eating in college-aged women.

They did find support for that assumption. When college women had a greater emotional connection to Facebook, they were more likely to compare their bodies to their friends’ bodies and engage in more risky dieting behaviours.

However, what the research team found next surprised them most. As long as women weren’t using Facebook to compare their body size and shape to their Facebook friends, being more emotionally invested in Facebook was associated with less concern about body size and shape and fewer risky dieting behaviours.

“I think that Facebook could be an amazing tool to nurture social support and connections with friends and families. And if you’re getting that kind of social support from the site, you might be less likely to be worried about your body size,” said Zerwas.

“But if you’re using it as a measuring stick to measure how your body appears in pictures compared to your friend’s body, Facebook could also be used as a tool to foster dangerous dieting behaviour,” Zerwas added. The study was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.