“Secondhand Television” Increases Risk for Eating Disorders

The effects of secondhand smoke have been well-documented, with many research studies showing the risks to exposure to other people’s cigarettes. Now, however, it turns out that another potentially harmful effect may be tied to secondhand television exposure. While the effects of secondhand television are not directly impacting physical well-being as cigarettes do, it may be psychologically damaging. A study conducted in Fiji during the 1990s documented the effects of introducing the television to a community who had never been exposed to its images. Because television had not been used on the particular island, and because the culture was one that valued a robust physical shape, it was ideal for identifying the trends in disordered eating behaviors that followed television watching. The study showed that continued exposure to heroines on popular shows that were slim and attractive challenged and distorted the previously held beliefs about body image and ideal physical appearances among young girls on the island. Now a new study has revealed that risks of developing disordered eating behaviors are not limited to those who own a television. A social network involving friends who value television viewing, the researchers say, may be enough to increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. Researchers from Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine further investigated the connection between media consumption and eating behaviors. The study was led by Anne Becker, the vice chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine. The study’s results indicated that owning a television was not necessary for there to be an increased risk in developing an eating disorder. The researchers were surprised to find that the biggest risk factor for eating disorders was how many of the participant’s friends owned a TV or had access to one. The researchers found that a social network of TV-viewing friends trumped even personal exposure or parental viewing, when accounting for other variables like urban location, body shape and other influences. The attitudes in a social group that had a high exposure to television were more powerful than actual television watching. A young girl in Fiji who had a peer group with higher media exposure was 60 percent more likely to have an eating disorder. The results of the study suggest that if a young girl is suspected to be struggling with body image due to media exposure, it isn’t enough for her parents to turn off the television. The intervention, says Becker, must stem from a community- or peer-level change in social network for the young girl.

Scroll to Top