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Social Media Erodes Self-esteem and Drives a Higher Risk of Eating Disorders in Adolescents
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By: Digital Safety Alliance
May 5th, 2024

While researchers have long known that screen time and self-esteem contribute to the development of symptoms associated with eating disorders among children, there has never been a study looking at how different types of screens (television, social media, video games) contribute to that impact over an extended period of time.
A new study conducted by Patricia J. Conrod, a researcher at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire (CHU) Sainte-Justine and professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Montreal, shows a correlation between an increase in social media use, a decrease in self-esteem, and a growth of symptoms associated with eating disorders among adolescents. This troubling trend occurs during a crucial period of adolescent development and continues over time.
Key Findings
In previous studies, Conrod and her team established that the use of social media by adolescents could increase their symptoms of depression, as well as contribute to an increase in impulsivity. Conrod’s latest study, published in the journal Psychology & Health, confirms that adolescents who use screens most often are also most likely to have low self-esteem, starting in the first year of use. This effect is particularly pronounced among adolescent social media users, whose lowered self-esteem persists and leads to a marked increase in symptoms associated with eating disorders two years later.
Conrod and her team conducted annual surveys of a total of 3,800 young people in 30 high schools in the Greater Montreal area over a period of 5 years. The study shows that social media appears to have a profound impact on young people's views of themselves.
Social media and television content contain depictions of age-matched real-life peers or actors, depicting unrealistic ideals of beauty and thinness, which decrease self-esteem and appear to increase adolescent concerns about body image and satisfaction with their own weight. Social media is particularly effective in promoting this effect over a longer period of time, suggesting that it is not just the presentation of ideal images (which are also presented on television), but rather the peer-generated and/or peer-shared content, which appears to be particularly impactful in terms of influencing lasting effects on self-esteem, body image, and satisfaction, as well as contributing to some eating-related symptoms.
While the longitudinal study indicated that the algorithmic nature of social media does not appear to exacerbate eating disorder vulnerability, what appears particularly problematic in the development of eating-related symptoms is exposure to peer-generated content that might be viewed as being less reality-based (e.g., produced television content, or digital animations in video games) compared to other forms of content.
Key Recommendations
Conrod says the study should motivate clinicians and social media companies to examine the degree to which adolescents spend time exposed to screens.
"It is urgent that social media platforms collaborate transparently with scientists,” she says. “The owners of media platforms will have to choose between profit and the mental health of their users in order to quickly find solutions to mitigate the physical and psychological effects of social networks on young people. Until now, researchers have had no access to the structure and inner workings of these platforms. While waiting for more openness, we must nevertheless make young people aware of their insidious effects.”
During the recent Metaverse and Health Symposium in Montreal, Conrod expanded on her findings, pointing out that problematic alcohol consumption, food disorders, and more aggressive behaviors seem to be associated with the use of social networks, although the causal link can be difficult to demonstrate.
She says social networks should employ concrete intervention measures, as well as offer “safe spaces" where young users would not be put in contact with harmful content.
"All studies show that prevention and intervention reduce alcohol consumption, depression, and anxiety,” she says. “Exposing young people to campaigns is not enough.”