Facebook users susceptible to press releases about Facebook

Another screaming tabloid headline on the press release regurgitators this week:

“Facebook Users More Prone to Developing Eating Disorders, Study Finds

Yeah, yeah, heard it all before. Some new buzzword gets blamed for supposedly new problem…

Apparently, a group of 248 girls aged 12-19 (average age: 14.8) took part in the survey. (You’re not supposed to use Facebook if you’re 12 by the way). These girls were asked to provide information on their Internet and television viewing habits. Regarding the latter, they were asked to give the number of popular shows related to extreme standards of physical image (the “Barbie” model) that they watched. The girls also filled out questionnaires that examined their approach to slimming, bulimia, physical satisfaction or dissatisfaction, their general outlook on eating, and their sense of personal empowerment. The researchers concluded that more “screen time” meant the girls were more likely to develop a problem.

The study seems so wrong on so many levels, but the press release is worse for hooking Facebook to the headline although this very small study was survey-based and asked about TV and internet use as well as eating habits, so not just Facebook at all.

I suspect the questions were not at all guarded or blinded, so that the interviewees might easily see through the questioning and imagine a “right” answer. Moreover, I wouldn’t take any self-reporting on media use or eating habits from anyone, let alone teenage girls, we’re all prone to deceive, exaggerate and outright lie in surveys.

It’s just the sort of study the Daily Fail will lap up though.

Eating disorders are a serious problem and maybe incidence is on the increase, reporting in the media about how they are on the increase certainly is, so who knows? The media is an easy target for blame given how brazen is the imagery to which we are exposed. But, humans have always idealised and sexualised images of women. Not just in the hip hop videos of today, nor the Madonna style external underwear of the 1980s, not just the iconic images of Marilyn Monroe, skirt blowing in the updraft or the exploitative photos of Jayne Mansfield, but stretching back hundreds, thousands of years. Every generation feels it has invented sex and sexualisation, but those things have always been with us, as have adolescents worried about their looks, their weight and their image.

However, eating disorders are certainly more than a simple psychological response to idealised body image. Those idealised images may bring an underlying mental problem to the surface, but that need not be seeing a booty-shakin’ babe or a size-zero Barbie girl flaunting it on Facebook. It could simply be the presence of a more ideal-seeming person in the sufferer’s social or family circle. Or, it could be something else entirely that causes these problems to arise and in our need to blame every problem on something external the latest craze simply becomes the easy target.