Study examines link between media consumption, eating disorders among adolescent girls in Fiji

For parents wanting to reduce the negative influence of TV on their children, the first step is normally to switch off the television set.

But a new study suggests that might not be enough. It turns out indirect media exposure, i.e., having friends who watch a lot of TV, might be even more damaging to a teenager's body image.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School's Department of Global Health and Social Medicine examined the link between media consumption and eating disorders among adolescent girls in Fiji.

What they found was surprising. The study's subjects did not even need to have a television at home to see raised risk levels of eating disorder symptoms.

In fact, by far the biggest factor for eating disorders was how many of a subject's friends and schoolmates had access to TV. By contrast, researchers found that direct forms of exposure, like personal or parental viewing, did not have an independent impact, when factors like urban location, body shape and other influences were taken into account.

It appeared that changing attitudes within a group that had been exposed to television were a more powerful factor than actually watching the programs themselves. In fact, higher peer media exposure were linked to a 60 percent increase in a girl's odds of having a high level of eating disorder symptoms, independently of her own viewing.

Lead author Anne Becker, vice chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, said this was the first study to attempt to quantify the role of social networks in spreading the negative consequences of media consumption on eating disorders.

"Our findings suggest that social network exposure is not just a minor influence on eating pathology here, but rather, IS the exposure of concern," she said.

"If you are a parent and you are concerned about limiting cultural exposure, it simply isn't going to be enough to switch off the TV. If you are going to think about interventions, it would have to be at a community or peer-based level."

Becker hopes the paper will encourage debate about responsible programming and the regulation of media content to prevent children from secondhand exposure.

"Up until now, it has been very difficult to get people who produce media as entertainment to come to the table and think about how they might ensure that their products are not harmful to children," she said.

This is Becker's second study of media's impact in Fiji, which is an ideal location for broadcast media research because of the recent arrival of television, in the 1990s, and the significant regional variations in exposure to TV, the Internet and print media. Some remote areas in the recent study still did not have electricity, cell phone reception, television or the Internet when the data were collected in 2007.

Her first study found a rise in eating disorder symptoms among adolescent girls following the introduction of broadcast television to the island nation in 1995.

What makes Fiji a particularly interesting case is that traditional culture prizes a robust body shape, in sharp contrast to the image presented by Western television shows such as Beverly Hills 90210, Seinfeld and Melrose Place, which were quite popular in Fiji when television debuted there in the 1990s.

Girls would see actresses as role models, says Becker, and began noting how a slender body shape was often accompanied by success in those shows. This perception appears to have been one of the factors leading to a rise in eating pathology among the Fijian teenagers.

But until now, it was not known how much of this effect came from an individual's social network.

Nicholas Christakis, professor of medical sociology in the department of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, has studied the spread of health problems through social networks.

"It shouldn't be that surprising to us, even though it is intriguing, that the indirect effects of media are greater," Christakis said. "Most people aren't paying attention to the media, but they are paying attention to what their friends say about what's in the media. It's a kind of filtration process that takes place by virtue of our social networks."

Becker says that although the study focused on Fijian schoolgirls, remote from the US, it warrants concern and further investigation of the health impact on other populations.

Source: Harvard Medical School


  1. Michelle Marks Michelle Marks United States says:


    Study Examines Link between Media Consumption, Eating Disorders among Adolescent Girls in Fiji                            

    Michelle Marks
    PSY223 Developmental Psychology Online
    September 30, 2012

    1.  Discuss the reasons for Becker’s decision to conduct the studies in Fiji.
    “Prior to the 1990s Fiji was uninhabited by television.” Fiji has undergone a major makeover as far as the way people shop, what they wear, and how they communicate with one another since the 1990s. The immersion of the television, internet, and, and cell phones into this society is not what caused Anne Becker to unilaterally to make a decision to study the link from media to eating disorders in Fiji teen girls. Becker wanted to understand what link adolescent girls had to one another when infiltrated by media.
    2.  According to the article, what effect does the higher peer media exposure have on children and adolescents? Discuss.  
    In the first parts of this article it seems as though media is to be solely blamed for changing how adolescent girls look at themselves.  Digging in deeper, the author explains that it is not direct but, “indirect media exposure.”   Any adolescent (especially girls) want to be in the “incrowd” in Fiji. It is extremely important for an adolescent to be accepted into a peer group.  An adolescent girl who does not have access to any media can see the difference in the way their friends dress, what they eat, magazines that are being read by the girls in the peer group.  These changes usually start with media and the adolescent girl who idolizes a model, identifies with a TV or reality show, or uses the internet to find the newest in fashion. Many times an adolescent can seek out sources of “coolness,” but those sources are not the best choices for them.  Movie, television, and internet sensations may not be living a healthy and fit lifestyle. Through one or more persons of adolescent peer groups; this unhealthy, but good looking lifestyle infuses to the rest of the group.  This is how not all parties of a peer group need to be in direct contact of any media.
    3.  Where does the responsibility lie for insuring that children and adolescents are not exposed to harmful media influences: Should media outlets (including internet outlets) be held to certain standards for responsible programming? Discuss.
    The bottom line is that it is the parent’s responsibility to make sure that their child is not being negatively influenced. Regardless of what is infused into an adolescent girl’s peer group; it is the parent’s responsibility to monitor their child.  However, Television that is on basic channels need to screen what they broadcast first.  Not only adolescent girls, but boys and younger children can be affected by what is watched on the television screen.  The internet is a different animal all of its own. The internet should not be accountable as a whole, but Facebook and MySpace should due to the fact that there are so many users.
    4.  It was stated in the article that a community or peer-based level intervention is needed to address the cultural exposure. Discuss at least three ways this type of approach could be implemented.
    Parents need to monitor what their kids are watching and turn it off to bad influences.
    Communities need to come together and rally support to make the internet and television more accountable to what it being produced.
    Lastly, even if a tween girl has no access to media; the parents should monitor their daughter’s time they spend with their peers if they are concerned.  
    5.  Consider popular TV shows, celebrity and social working sites. Provide some examples of things that could negatively impact young people.
    Facebook is a great site to meet friend and talk, but it is very addictive.  Now that cell phones have internet; people take their phones to school, work, and everywhere.  This site along with other social sites like it can interrupt a person’s life instantaneously.  Facebook actually can cause someone’s decision making to be totally different prior to reading something on the site.  Celebrity internet sites and television shows give the perspective that fashion is hot, stars are hotter, and it is cool to be thin to get into the newest clothing line.
    6.  Have you experienced positive or negative influences from TV/Social Media in regard to your body image?  If not, consider someone in your life; friend or family member. Explain the consequences of that influence.
    When I was a teenager; Janet Jackson was who I looked to for “coolness.”  Most all of the girls in my school would say the same thing; “Janet Jackson was it back then.” I do not believe that Janet Jackson produced a negative self body image. I actually think that she promoted health and used it define strong dancers.  I have never had any friends or family to my knowledge that had a problem with bulimia or anorexia nervosa.  I have heard about adolescent girls with those problems on TV and in books, but never was close to anyone with those issues.  Even when I was younger if I knew of someone that was purging or taking laxatives or diet pills to stay thin; I would have tried to speak to them.  Because to love your body means to stay fit, but not to be extreme in trying to stay thin.

    (I am also emailing you a copy that is strictly by the instructions you have given to produce this analysis)

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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