Young Children May Begin to Develop Eating Disorders by Watching TV

August 2, 2000
Communication Research/MedscapeWire

Research has shown that most eating disorders begin in adolescence, but a University of Michigan researcher has found that even young grade-school children can develop eating problems — simply by watching television.

“The most straightforward explanation for this finding is that television viewing increases children’s exposure to dieting images, ideas and behaviors, which in turn, lead to changes in their eating-related cognitions and behaviors,” says Kristen Harrison, University of Michigan assistant professor of communication studies.

“Because research on other media effects, such as violence and aggression, suggests that young children are more likely than adolescents or adults to model viewed behaviors, it is reasonable to expect that young children would model the lean body ideal they observe on television. It is also reasonable to expect that television exposure will be correlated with children’s understanding of the thin body as the socially ideal body, and the fat body as the socially stigmatized body.”

In a new study to appear this fall in the journal Communication Research, Harrison surveyed about 300 students, aged 6 to 8 years, at 2 mostly white elementary schools in the Midwest about the amount of television they watch, their favorite television characters, and their beliefs about the ideal body shape and fat stereotyping.

She also measured the students’ disordered eating symptoms by using the Children’s Eating Attitudes Test, an empirical scale containing more than 2 dozen cognitive and behavioral self-report items. Sample items include “I stay away from foods with sugar in them” and “I think a lot about having fat on my body.”

Even after controlling for the fact that some children with eating problems specifically seek out body-related information on television, Harrison found that television viewing, in general, predicts eating disorder symptoms for both boys and girls.

“The fact that the correlation remained suggests that even for children who have little or no interest in fitness and dieting television content, increased television exposure is still linked to increased disordered eating,” she says.

However, while children’s television viewing may indicate the development of eating disorders, Harrison did not find that children necessarily favor thin body-shape standards. This suggests that children may begin modeling the dieting and exercising behaviors they see on television even before they actually begin to internalize the thin-body ideal.

In fact, the girls in the study who watched the most television chose a heavier figure as representing the ideal body size for adult women and a thinner figure as representing their own. This is opposite the pattern one might expect, in which television viewing would predict the overestimation of one’s own body size and the choice of unrealistically thin standards for the ideal size of females in general, Harrison says.

“Girls who were interpersonally attracted to average-weight female characters reported the healthiest (or normal) body-size choices and believed thinness to be relatively unimportant,” she says. “This suggests that adopting normal-weight role models on television could be beneficial for girls.”

In contrast, those girls attracted to thin female television characters are more likely to view their own bodies as heavier, while boys attracted to thin male characters favor a thinner ideal-body size for males, the study shows.

In addition, television viewing, in general, predicts an increased tendency among boys to negatively stereotype a heavy girl (but not a heavy boy) — a finding that Harrison says is not surprising since prior research has shown this. She adds that the media may teach young children, and boys in particular, to “denigrate fatness before they learn to idealize thinness.”

“Children’s interpersonal attraction to television characters appears to play an important role in the outcomes of television exposure vis-à-vis fat stereotyping and body-shape standards, although this role is more complicated than I had initially predicted,” Harrison says.

For example, she found that attraction to heavy male characters is associated with decreased “fat-boy” stereotyping among both boys and girls, but attraction to fat female characters is not linked to less “fat-girl” stereotyping.

Further, Harrison says, girls’ attraction to average-weight female characters decreases their risk of developing thinness-favoring cognitions and behaviors, but for boys, attraction to average-weight male characters predicts increased eating disorder symptoms.

“It is clear that we need more research to clarify the relationships between children’s interpersonal attraction to characters of varying body types and their eating- and body-related cognitions and behaviors,” Harrison says. “Only through increased understanding of how children of varying ages and both sexes may develop damaging body standards through early-life media exposure can we increase our understanding of how interventions, especially media-based interventions, may be adapted to a child audience to minimize their risk of developing eating disorders in adolescence and beyond.”

Tanna Hoagland,PhD specializes in working with children and adults with body image issues.

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Dr. Gnap

Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago.  Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.  He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”

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