Facebook, TV, even education — recently it seems like almost everything kids and their families do increases the risk of eating disorders. Herewith, a tour of some of the things that reportedly contribute to ED — and what we may be able to learn from them.
A recent study found that the more time teen girls spent on the social networking site, the more likely they were to develop anorexia or bulimia.
Friends who watch television
In Fiji, girls whose friends watch TV are at higher risk of eating disorders, though watching TV oneself seems to have little effect.
Well-educated parents and grandparents
Having a parent or grandmother who attended college increases a girl's risk of ED.
According to one study, cheerleaders are at high risk of developing eating disorders — especially if they have to wear midriff-baring uniforms.
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens are at higher risk of some eating disorders, possibly because they are sometimes "treated as outsiders" at school.
Joining a sorority
One study found that college women who joined Greek organizations were more prone to bulimic behaviors and "body shame."
In 2009, a mom sued her daughter's Pittsburgh school district for failing to stop bullying that she said led to anorexia. However, Carrie Arnold makes a distinction between trigger and cause: "[T]he bullying didn't cause this poor girl's anorexia. It might have triggered it, yes, in the sense that the bullying caused her to throw her lunch away, which led to the energy imbalance, which led to anorexia."
One study found that undergraduate women who played sports regularly were at higher risk of eating disorders than their peers, and the risk was greatest for women at the highest levels of competition.
Friends or classmates with eating disorders
Researchers found that eating disorders seem to "cluster" in certain counties, especially among girls, which may be the result of "peer pressure, information sharing or students modeling their behavior on one another."
Family research into anorexia suggests that heredity plays a big role in the disorder. Scientists have begun to find gene variants that increase the risk — "however," they say, "the relatively modest number of anorexia cases explained by these results we found suggests that many other candidate genes remain unknown."
This last one is key — it's important to remember that, in addition to possible environmental influences, many eating disorders have a biological basis. As Arnold says, factors like Facebook use and cheerleading probably don't cause eating disorders on their own, but they may act as triggers for people who are already predisposed. It's worth noting, too, that many of the above risk factors may simply co-occur with eating disorders without actually causing them in any way. In fact, while environmental influences on ED remain a worthy subject of study, the sheer variety of possible links highlights the importance of understanding the illnesses' biological causes too. There are things we can do as a society to minimize ED triggers (not posting calorie counts in restaurants or freaking out about the freshman 15, for instance), but we may not be able to eliminate all the things that can potentially trip predisposed brains. To really get rid of anorexia, bulimia, and their ilk, we need to really understand what's going wrong in those brains, and how to make it right.
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