Cyberbullying and negative messages targeting overweight and obese people are common on social media, a new study finds.
Researchers analyzed more than 1.3 million messages that contained the words "fat", "obese", "obesity" or "overweight". The messages were posted on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, forums and blogs, as well as other types of social media. The messages were posted between January and March 2012.
The results showed a large number of negative stereotypes, "fat" jokes, self-deprecating humour and alienation of overweight and obese people, according to the findings published recently in the journal Translational Behavioural Medicine.
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The researchers were also alarmed by the significant amount of verbal aggression against overweight and obese people, particularly women.
Twitter and Facebook had especially high percentages of negative messages, the study reports. Blogs and forums were more likely to offer useful information about weight-related topics, including advice about healthy eating and weight management, according to the researchers.
Bringing awareness to the issue
Health care providers need to be aware of the types of online activity regarding overweight and obesity, how it varies depending on the type of social media, and how it shapes public attitudes, according to study author Wen-ying Sylvia Chou of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
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"Twitter and Facebook posts are dominated by derogatory and misogynist sentiment, pointing to weight stigmatisation, whereas blogs and forums are safe online havens that provide support against weight bias," Chou noted. "Social media must therefore not be viewed simply as breeding grounds for weight stigma, but also as encouraging and supportive environments."
Chou added that social media could be used to counter negative online activity about overweight and obesity. For example, anti-cyberbullying programmes and celebrities could send messages to social media users about the harm caused by derogatory comments about weight.
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Image: Teenage girl being bullied by text message from Shutterstock