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Eating Disorders and Social Influence

Posted Sep 22 2008 5:37pm

Several recent studies have highlighted a "social Influence" variable as a risk factor for eating disordered behavior. Does this mean that eating disorders are contagious?

Do these findings suggest that disordered eating is contagious?

On the one hand peer weight-loss behaviors, dietary restriction and disordered eating among close friends has been shown to have an influence on adolescent and young adult attitudes about food and weight.   If a teen wants to feel “part of the crowd,” or be accepted by a group of peers who emphasize a particular weight or shape ideal, it can be difficult to go against the tide of peer attitudes. Social peers who engage in eating disorder behaviors such as calorie restriction, binging and purging can be a source of vulnerability for someone at risk (Shepphird, 2008).

However, we also know that the risk for eating disorders is multi-factorial. The bulk of research suggests that genetic factors, biological factors, psychological factors, developmental factors, familial influence, cultural influence, occupational factors, stress factors and trauma may all play a role in the overall picture of eating disorders risk.

So what is a parent to do when he or she suspects that their child may be involved with peers who engage in eating disordered behaviors? Professionals may wish to consider the benefits of advising parents to:

  • Speak with their child about their concerns.
  • Ask the child if he or she has observed any high-risk behaviors or harmful attitudes toward food, weight, and body shape.
  • Ask the child if such behaviors have been discussed among the peer group.
  • If the child is at risk for an eating disorder, parents may want to consider limiting the amount of contact that their child may have with peers who may be encouraging eating disordered behavior. However, a teen’s friendships can be an extremely important and an influential source of support, so parents should be careful to not attack her friends, judge them, or put them down in any way.
  • Parents will also want to ensure that there are adequate avenues for peer support in their child’s life.

While peer influence is certainly not a sole cause of eating disorders and unhealthy food-related behaviors, we cannot ignore the evidence which suggests that perceived peer and social norms appear to have an influence on both the perceived ideal image of appearance, as well as upon peer behavior. According to the much-publicized 2007 New England Journal of Medicine article, "it is becoming clear that social influence matters in [eating disorders and] obesity. But more research is needed to uncover exactly how it matters."

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