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31 January 2013

Peer pressure trumps “thin” ideals in the media

Study compares the relative impact of peer competition, television, and social media on girls' body image.

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Peers exert a greater influence on teenage girls' dissatisfaction with their bodies than do thin ideals in television or social media use, according to new research by Dr Christopher J Ferguson and colleagues from Texas A & M International University in the US.

The influence of the media on body image, life satisfaction, and symptoms of eating disorders in teenage girls is a hot debate. Some experts believe that media influences on body dissatisfaction may extend to symptoms of eating disorders.

Others contend that the link between media exposure and body image is inconsistent. Ferguson and his team's work shed light on this debate, by comparing the effects of peers and the media on girls' body dissatisfaction, eating disorder symptoms, and life satisfaction in general.

How the research was done

To assess exposure to thin ideals in the media, the researchers asked 237 young Hispanic girls, aged 10 to 17 years, to name their 3 favourite television shows and to rate the attractiveness of the female actresses in those shows.

They also assessed their body weight and height, whether or not they had feelings of inferiority in response to other girls (peer competition), and how often they used social media.

The girls were then asked about how they felt about their bodies, whether they had any eating disorder symptoms, and how satisfied they were, overall, with their lives. Six months later, the researchers repeated these measures in 101 teen girls from the initial group.

On the whole, neither television exposure to thin ideals nor social media use predicted body dissatisfaction, whereas peer competition did. Similarly, television exposure and social media use did not predict eating disorder symptoms. Peer competition predicted eating disorder symptoms long-term, though not in the short term. Interestingly, both peer competition and social media use predicted lower life satisfaction.

The authors conclude, "Our results suggest that only peer competition, not television or social media use, predict negative outcomes for body image. This suggests that peer competition is more salient to body and eating issues in teenage girls. However, social media use may provide a new arena for peer competition, even if it does not directly influence negative body outcomes."

(EurekAlert, January 2013)

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