Wednesday, 16 July 2014


"The impact of the media on eating disorders in children and adolescents"
- Anne M Morris, Debra K Katzman
Paediatr Child Health Vol 8 No 5 May/June 2003


Epidemiological studies have suggested that the incidence of eating disorders among adolescent girls has increased over the last 50 years. The reported prevalence rate for anorexia nervosa is 0.48% among girls 15 to 19 years old. Approximately 1% to 5% of adolescent girls meet the criteria for bulimia nervosa (1).

Types of Media Exposure:

Today's children and adolescents grow up in a world flooded with the mass media (television, films, videos, billboards, magazines, movies, music, newspapers, fashion designers and the internet) (6,7). Staggering statistics reveal that, on average, a child or adolescent watches up to 5h of television per day (7) and spends an average of 6 to 7h viewing the various media combined (6).

Over the past 20 years, several articles have proposed a link between the thin female beauty ideal and the muscular male body ideal portrayed in the media with a range of psychological symptomatology including body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. Studies have reported a significant change in the weight and size of female and male models portrayed throughout the media in western society and the concept of the 'perfect or ideal body' (8-10).

Over time the cultural ideal for women's body size and shape has become considerably thinner and leaner and men's body size has become stronger and more muscular. This is best illustrated in a study by Katzmarzyk and Davis (8) who examined changes in the body weight and shape of Playboy centre-folds over two decades (1978-1998). They found there was a significant decrease in the models' weights and measurements with 70% of the women being underweight and greater than 75% of the women were less than 85% of their ideal body weight. A similar study looking at male centre-fold models in Playgirl magazine from 1973-1997 found that male models had become significantly more muscular overtime (9).

Guillen and Barr (10) focused on the messaged in a popular magazine for adolescent girls and found that between 1970 to 1990 the emphasis on fitness increased, and the body shape of models reported a trend toward more andogynous-looking bodies.

Media and Body Dissatisfaction in Children and Adolescents:

Tiggerman et al (14) studied body concerns in adolescent girls (aged 16 years old) and attempted to understand the underlying motivations for their wish to be thin. The factor exerting the strongest pressure to be thin was the media. Despite the fact that these adolescent girls clearly articulated a desire to be thinner, they also described how this did not necessarily mean they were dissatisfied with their bodies.

Media and Eating, and Weight Control Behaviours:

In one study, 44% of adolescent girls believed they were overweight and 60% were actively trying to lose weight even through the majority of these young girls were within normal weight ranges (15).

One study measured indicators of disordered eating in a "media naive population"of Fijian schoolgirls after the introduction of Western television. The key indicators of disordered eating were found to be significantly more prevalent following prolonged television exposure, suggesting a negative impact of this media. Among the narrative data was the frequent theme of subjects reporting an interest in weight loss as a means of modelling themselves after television characters (18).

A study of the relationship between media and eating disorders among undergraduate college students found that media exposure predicted disordered eating symptomology, drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction and ineffectiveness in women, and endorsement of personal thinness and dieting in men (19).

In a cross-sectional survey of 548 girls from graes 5 to 12, participants self-reported the frequency of reading fashion magazines, and attitudes and behaviours, including dieting and exercise. After controlling for weight status, school level and racial group, those who frequently read fashion magazines were twice as likely to have dieted and three times as likely to have initiated an exercise program to lose weight, than infrequent readers (11).

These methodologically diverse studies illustrate how exposure to unrealistic and often unhealthy body images can influence young people's perceptions of their own body shape and size as well as their own sense of body dissatisfaction. The effect of the media may also extend to the development of specific, and possibly harmful, weight losing behaviours. 

What to do about the Media:

The literature confirms that children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to messages and images conveyed through the mass media. Many children and adolescents cannot discriminate between what they see and what is real. For instance, young people are often unaware that digital technology and manipulation in the fashion industry use air brush and digital enhancement to portray the 'ideal' female and male body. These images promote unrealistic standards that are impossible to achieve.
- 5,000 a day

- Argument that media can be used to help promote good health and prevention strategies.