The more teenage girls are involved in Facebook, the higher their risk of having a negative body image and developing eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, according to a new University of Haifa study, whose authors advise parents to supervise their children’s Web use in order to reduce the danger.

Prof. Yael Letzer, Prof. Ruth Katz and Zohar Spivak (who studied the matter for her doctoral thesis) of the Social Welfare and Health Sciences Faculty studied two factors involved in eating disorders among a sample of 248 Jewish secular adolescent girls aged 12 to 18: exposure to the media and personal empowerment.

The girls, with a median age of 14.8, were asked about their TV-watching, Internet and magazine-reading habits. Regarding television, the girls were queried about whether they watched popular shows that present an extreme focus on Barbie doll-like “beautiful, voluptuous and thin” women. They also filled out questionnaires on their desire to be thin, satisfaction (or lack of same) with their bodies, weight and eating.

The Haifa researchers found that there was a direct connection between the extent of their Facebook involvement and a greater number of eating problems. The more they were on the social network, the more they were likely to suffer from bulimia (eating a lot of food and then vomiting it) or anorexia (starving themselves), dissatisfaction with their figures and pursuit of a weight-loss diet.

The authors hinted that being constantly involved with Facebook promoted a single minded focus on oneself – one’s looks, habits, and behaviors.

Exposure to fashion and music on the Internet showed the same trend, but not as strong a connection as Facebook use. The researchers also found that the level of the girls’ personal empowerment was negatively linked to eating disorders; the more empowered they felt, the lower the risk of eating disorders and suffering from poor body image.

When parents were aware of what their daughters were seeing and doing on the Internet and conducted a dialogue with them over the content and amount of hours invested, the more protected the girls were from eating disorders; they had a higher feeling of empowerment and a better body image, the researchers found.

They concluded that with their involvement, caring and supervision, parents have the ability to influence their daughters’ sense of self and minimize their risk of eating disorders.

Asked to comment, sports medicine expert Dr. Naama Constantini of Hadassah Optimal and the orthopedics department of Hadassah University Medical Center said the study’s conclusion was interesting and sounded logical and deserving of further study.

However, she suggested that girls who tended to spend a lot of time on the Internet and especially social networks might be more likely to suffer from eating disorders because they used the sites to get tips on how to hide their disorder or didn’t have the strength to do sports and go out into society or felt they had to hide how they look.

They would automatically be exposed more to Facebook, which apparently has replaced many of the websites established by sufferers who wanted to spread the word and give tips to fellow sufferers.

The university spokesman said that the study was based on interviews that showed a direct link between Facebook exposure and eating disorders, even if one did not cause the other.

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