Facebook Timeline may be exacerbating the weight insecurity that many users already feel by making it easier to compare their weights at different points in their lives, a new survey suggests.
Researchers at the The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore commissioned a public survey of 600 Facebook users age 16 to 40 and discovered that the majority of users with Timeline had used the feature to compare their weights at different points in their lives.
In addition, 14 percent of users who had switched to Timeline had installed applications that allow users to track and chart their weight loss, and 37 percent said they were interested in trying out the feature in the future.
But Facebook Timeline or not, the survey found that 75 percent of users on the social network felt unhappy with their current weight, with 51 percent reporting that seeing of pictures of themselves on the site made them more aware of their size. Nearly 1 in 3 users said that when they compared pictures of themselves to pictures of friends, they felt sad.
"Facebook is making it easier for people to spend more time and energy criticizing their own bodies and wishing they looked like someone else," Dr. Harry Brandt, director of The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, said in a press release. "In this age of modern technology and constant access to SmartPhones and the internet, it's becoming increasingly difficult for people to remove themselves from images and other triggers that promote negative body image, low self-esteem and may ultimately contribute to eating disorders."
Steven Crawford, associate director at the Center for Eating Disorders, said that excessively monitoring one's weight can be a contributing factor to eat disorders, and that behavior is now easier than ever thanks to Facebook.
"People are now constantly aware of their appearance, thanks to Facebook. A common reaction is, 'I need to be thinner' And it's that kind of thinking that can lead to hazardous dieting," Crawford told TechNews Daily.
"Facebook is an influential factor in developing severe eating disorders," he said.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, about 1 percent of women will develop anorexia nervosa in her lifetime, and 3.5 percent of women will develop a binge eating disorder such as bulimia nervosa. Between 1999 to 2006, the rate of hospitalization for eating disorders increased by 18 percent.
At least one study has linked Facebook use with eating disorders. A survey of 248 female Facebook users age 12-18 found that the more time young women spend on Facebook, the more likely they are to develop an eating disorder.
According to the study conducted by researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel:
The results showed that the more time girls spend on Facebook, the more they suffered conditions of bulimia, anorexia, physical dissatisfaction, negative physical self-image, negative approach to eating and more of an urge to be on a weight-loss diet. Extensive online exposure to fashion and music content showed similar tendencies, but manifested in fewer types of eating disorders.
Despite feelings of inadequacy many users experience from using the site, Facebook membership numbers are growing faster than ever. According to data from Edison Research and Arbitron, over half of U.S. citizens over the age of 11 are now on Facebook. By August 2012, the site's membership is expected to reach $1 billion users worldwide.
Watch Channel 5 News' report on the Center for Eating Disorders' study above.