Does the Media Cause Eating Disorders?
Teenagers are most media savvy, and also most affected by eating disorders. Seemingly every year the number of children suffering from eating disorders increases, while the average patient age decreases. However, whether the media is responsible for their body image issues and low self-esteem has yet to be proven. Students from Dulwich College Beijing weigh the responsibility of the media, chasing the cause of eating disorders.
Rebecca, Denmark, 17 years old, has been a student at Dulwich College Beijing since 2007*
Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating followed by purging have been known to be fatal. So why has the number of patients suffering from eating disorders increased every year since 1999?
Even with the intensified amount of research and increased awareness – many are continuously reaching out to these disorders as solutions. But what are they solutions to? Researchers who have investigated the causes of these disorders have found that they are more likely to occur in perfectionists who exhibit poor self-esteem.
Media is embedded everywhere; 95 percent of the world’s population owns a TV set, 1 out of 7 minutes online is spent on Facebook, and 4.2 billion people access social media via mobile devices. These numbers demonstrate not only the ease but also the extent to which media has infiltrated our lives.
The constant overexposure to hyper-sexualized images of both genders, representing society’s “ideal body size” as portrayed through the media, is taking a toll on the way young adolescents see themselves. Photoshop models and filter-layered selfies litter the Internet, filling young minds with unrealistic expectations of “beauty”. Young men and women either slave away trying to mirror the lies of the media, or collapse under the pressure of wanting to achieve while placing their bodies in serious physiological harm.
Kelly Brownell PhD, leading psychologist and expert in health psychology, argues that the media creates a “toxic environment in which eating disorders are more likely to occur.” With every click and swipe of a finger while on the Internet, celebrity style icons are constantly promoted. Their almost sickly thin physiques, further emphasized by photo editors, have not only become goals, but obsessions for millions of girls across the globe who create blogs, apps and Instagram accounts dedicated to them. Their webpages are titled “How to look like Kendall” and “Thinspiration” filled with content that promotes nothing but unhealthy ideals and diet plans.
Then, we wonder why we are seeing such an escalated number of eating disorders within the “techno-generation.”
Miles, France, 17 years old, has been a student at Dulwich College Beijing since 2002*
Eating disorders – particularly anorexia and bulimia — have not been studied extensively. They are serious psychological disorders, a realm of illness that often cannot be pinned to a definitive, singular cause. One popular theory is to blame the media for a rise in the number of teens with eating disorders. Truth by majority opinion is a dangerous path.
The National Eating Disorders Association cites several studies that identify familial support and self-esteem deficits as an underlying cause. The American Psychological Association states that people with eating disorders suffer from “low-self-esteem, feelings of helplessness”. The importance of pinpointing the underlying cause of an illness is essential to developing an effective treatment. The essence of the problem in eating disorders appears to lie in an individual’s self-esteem, as well as their social circle.
People are far more isolated in today’s modern environment—a more likely cause. Shankar Vedantam in the Washington Post discusses the decline of social ties and support systems that carry a host of psychological benefits, stating how “intimate social ties… are shrinking or nonexistent. In bad times, far more people appear to suffer alone.” He further reveals that “three-quarters of people in 1985 reported they had a friend in whom they could confide; only half in 2004 said they could count on such support.” Additionally, the U.S census bureau determined in 2012 that 27 percent of households were single-person households, as opposed to 17 percent in 1970.
It seems pertinent to be concerned by the parallel trends between the increase in social isolation and eating disorders. Even more so now that there is a verifiable link: self-esteem and social support. Who is more likely to be affected by the media? A person with a warm supportive family and a large group of friends, or a person isolated from the world, with few people to speak to? Logical deduction should lead us to conclude that it is not the rise of mass media that is the cause of the eating disorders, but rather the decline of social support. This becomes even more evident when noting the tendency of people with eating disorders to seek further isolation… leading to a recursive cycle. The Center of Eating Disorders for the leading mental health institution of Sheppard Pratt states “individuals with eating disorders often find themselves stuck in a pattern,” later elaborating that “social-isolation” is embedded in this cycle.
The combined effort of a community to purge the media of thin-bodies seems wasted when an answer lies within reach. If we truly want to prevent eating disorders, what we really need are researched facts. We need to study the causation – not the correlation. From the research at hand, the media is not a viable issue to tackle. We need social reform. A rise in eating disorders may only be a symptom of a greater disease, an invisible tumor that lies in the heart of our society, buried in fractured homes, and isolated people. Spurious correlation doesn’t explain this one away. It is time for us to move away from the media, and address the issue at its core.
*Editor’s Correction: In the original print version of this article, the students’ length of stay in Beijing was wrongly listed as six months.
This article originally appeared on page 30-31 of the August 2016 Issue of beijingkids magazine. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact email@example.com.
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