Parents may try to limit their teen’s exposure to negative images in the media, but according to a depressing new study, it doesn’t matter. Even teen girls whose friends watch lots of TV have an increased risk of eating disorders. Harvard Medical School researchers have been studying the relationship between media consumption and eating disorders in Fiji. Traditionally, Fijian culture prizes a robust body shape, but after TV was introduced to the island in 1995, there was a rise in eating disorders among teens, Eurekalert reports. While one might expect that teens whose families didn’t own a TV would be less affected by the introduction of Western standards of beauty to Fiji, researchers actually found the biggest factor for eating disorders was how many of the teen’s friends and schoolmates had access to TV. Higher peer media exposure made a girl 60% more likely to have a high level of eating disorder symptoms. Direct TV exposure, like personal or parental viewing, actually seemed to have no impact on the teen’s risk for eating disorders. Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard professor of medical sociology, explains:
Most people aren’t paying attention to the media, but they are paying attention to what their friends say about what’s in the media. It’s a kind of filtration process that takes place by virtue of our social networks.
It’s already impossible to prevent a girl from seeing negative images of women in the media. Even if a teen never watches TV or movies (yeah, right) she’s still going to see Gap ads featuring impossibly slim models and drastically altered images while buying tank tops at Ann Taylor’s website. But it’s still disheartening to learn that even if parents conscientiously monitor what their kids see on TV, their efforts will be instantly thwarted during conversations with friends in the school cafeteria. Lead author Anne Becker tells parents that if they’re worried about limiting media exposure, “It simply isn’t going to be enough to switch off the TV. If you are going to think about interventions, it would have to be at a community or peer-based level.” Which of course, is a much more daunting task. Becker hopes her research will help encourage debate about the regulation of media and push broadcasters to air more responsible programming. However, considering how long it took for society to do any thing about harmful effects of secondhand smoke, it seems unlikely that we’ll see changes to curtail the effects of “secondhand television” anytime soon.