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Study Finds 'Significant' Link Between Social Media and Eating Disorders

According to a new study, young people who consume "fitspiration" content are more likely to engage in anorexia- or bulimia-related behaviors.

That barrage of preachy fitness posts you get on your Facebook feed from your really "healthy" friends have a name. They're called "fitspiration" and they have become a veritable cottage industry of social media content, providing an endless stream of abs, glutes, smoothies, acai bowls, and motivational quotes.

But these health-driven lifestyle posts might not be healthy at all, and, in fact, reinforcing some very destructive behaviour. As counterintuitive as it sounds, these are the main findings of a recent study looking at the complex and occasionally perverse link between between social media, eating disorders, body image, and compulsive exercise.


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A research team looked at data from 262 participants who completed an online questionnaire about their exercise and eating habits, as well as their consumption of online "fitspirational" nutrition and exercise content. These posts are usually in the form of a short quote and image encouraging people to push themselves as hard as possible during exercise, in order to attain their (usually aesthetic) fitness goals.

According to the team, the results suggest a significant link between mobile phone apps and compulsive exercise behaviour—hardly surprising, given the wide range of other compulsive behaviours related to cell phone use. More specifically, Hefner and her colleagues found that young people consuming fitspiration content are more likely to engage in anorexia- or bulimia-related behaviors, like binging and purging, and also admitted to doing exercise "in order to feel good about themselves."

"Plenty of previous work has documented the ways in which young people can be particularly vulnerable to the effects of media use in this area of body image," Veronica Hefner, one of the authors of the paper said in a press statement. "But it seems from our study that 'fitspiration' content is specifically related to risky behaviors like compulsive exercise and eating disorder symptoms, especially among those young people who use mobile apps on a frequent basis."

It's important to remember that these results are purely correlational, and no causation was inferred. It's possible that people with eating disorders are just seeking out this kind of content.