Media Smart tackles social media pressures

The more time that teenage girls spend on Instagram, the greater their likelihood of having eating disorder thoughts and behaviours.

Flinders University researchers have found that for both girls and boys, the more social media accounts they had, the higher their level of eating disorder thoughts and behaviours.

The findings come at a time of intense discussion about social media triggered by the The Social Dilemma, a Netflix documentary featuring previous software developers originally involved in the creation of leading social media apps.

To help overcome these problems, Flinders University researchers have developed Media Smart Online, a program that reduces the risk of eating disorders – and it has already achieved such positive results with young-adult women that its use is being expanded to 13-25 year-olds of any gender across Australia.

The I am Media Smart trial has now launched and is open to 13-25 year-olds wanting to improve their body image. Participation involves completing a baseline survey, being automatically randomly allocated to one of 3 programs, then completing the survey on three further occasions over the next 12 months.

Dr Simon Wilksch, a Senior Research Fellow at Flinders University and Clinic Director at Advanced Psychology Services, says that Media Smart has been evaluated with 18-to-25-year-old women wishing to improve their body image. “The results were exciting,” he says.

The program reduced eating disorder onset by 66% and increased eating disorder remission by 75% for those with symptoms at the start of the study, compared to control subjects who did not receive a program.

Program participants were 91% less likely than control subjects to develop depressive symptoms and half as likely to develop suicidal thoughts, after a 12-month follow-up.

Improvements in an additional six risk factors, including feelings of ineffectiveness and pressure from the media, were also observed in the research results.

“Eating disorders convey enormous suffering to the individual and their loved ones,” says Dr Wilksch. “We know that young people are very reluctant to seek help for their body image or concerns regarding food and exercise.

“The first trial showed that only 14% of participants had spoken with a health professional regarding their symptoms, despite over two thirds having clear signs of an eating disorder.  However, being able to anonymously access an effective, completely online, free program was greatly appreciated by participants.

“This is likely to be even more true now in the era of COVID-19.”

Dr Simon Wilksch.

The new I am Media Smart trial, funded by Australian Rotary Health, is timely given recent research by Dr Wilksch’s group revealing the impact of social media on disordered eating in 12-13 year-old girls and boys.

“A clear link was found between each social media platform measured and eating disorder thoughts and behaviours in both girls and boys,” says Dr Wilksch.

Girls using Snapchat were more likely to report skipping meals; following a strict meal plan; eating very little; strict exercise, and placing high levels of importance on appearance, than those without the platform.

For boys, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Tumblr were all related to being more likely to skip meals.

“Social media encourages young people to focus strongly on their appearance and the way it is judged by others.  For adolescents and young adults, this is occurring at a vulnerable time where the influence of peers is very important,” Dr Wilksch says.

Media Smart encourages people to be informed about how the media works and to reflect on how media and other pressures impacts them. “Ultimately we want people to make up their own minds about how they wish to respond to these pressures.”

Dr Wilksch emphasises that eating disorders are complex illnesses with over 30 different risk factors. “We are not suggesting that media and social media are the sole causes of poor body image and eating disorders. However, we have seen in both the school version of the program and Media Smart Online that young people respond well to reflecting on their relationship with different forms of media and expanding their domains of self-worth into other, more helpful areas.”

Dr Wilksch says those who participate in the program will receive a $30 gift voucher as reimbursement for their time. Interested 13-to-25-year-olds can participate directly at the website mediasmart.flinders.edu.au

  • Dr Simon Wilksch explains his research that supports Media Smart Online in the Podcast “The Research Behind Lift the Lid”, which can be accessed via Apple Podcasts.
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