The Internet is the new baggie sweatshirt

Photo via Thinkstock.
Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

I’ve written a lot about the ways technology can improve healthcare since coming to Northeastern. We have a great new graduate program dedicated to the subject and a slew of brilliant researchers here are looking at it from a unique, patient-facing angle. But there’s another side to technology and health that I just got my first academic glimpse at this morning.

Rachel Rodgers is a visiting professor in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences who studies body image and how it is related to eating disorders. “Something I’ve become very interested in is how technology in general can affect the development of body image and eating disorders, but also how it can be used to prevent them,” she told me.

In a study recently published in the journal Cyperpsychology, Rodgers looks at one example of the former. She and her colleagues hypothesized that Internet-use and addiction could be seen as a body image avoidance behavior, which is basically just a way for those that don’t like their appearance to hide it from the world. If so, it could potentially be used as a predictor for eating disorders, she explained.

Rachel and her team administered an online survey to almost 400 young adults, both male and female. The survey asked participants a host of questions about everything from how much time they spend on the Internet and what kinds of websites they visit to how often they weigh themselves and whether they ever avoid eating.

The team found that simply the amount of time participants spent online correlated well with disordered eating but not with body image avoidance behaviors. When they probed a little further though, and looked at how people spent their time online, they found that women who demonstrated symptoms of Internet-addiction were more likely to show signs of both disordered eating and behavioral avoidance. Internet-addiction in men correlated with body image avoidance but not disordered eating.

I thought that gender discrepancy was interesting, so I asked Rogers about it. For men, physical ideals are much more centered on muscularity than thinness, she said. So they don’t really perceive disordered eating as a solution to their body image struggles. But the Internet can still provide a safe place to hide their appearance.

So, what is Internet-addiction exactly? Well, pretty much just what it sounds like. You might be addicted to the Internet if you long to be online when you aren’t or crave the excitement of websites over real-life relationships. And it’s this second piece that so intrigued Rodgers. Sites like Facebook and Myspace provide a social community in which members have much more control over their self-presentation than they do in the real world. For people that struggle with body image, this could be extremely inviting. And that’s just what they found.

“People who do have body concerns and are prone to body image avoidance are perhaps more vulnerable to developing Internet-addiction because it is so comfortable for them and it allows them to have interactions that they don’t feel happy having in the real world,” said Rodgers.

The results are based on a “snapshot in time,” Rodgers explained, as the survey was only administered once. She said it could be interesting to look at the same patterns over a longer period in order to tease out whether the body image disorder is causing the Internet-addiction or vice versa. Regardless, though, the results still provide a new entry point for Internet-addiction and eating disorder and body image interventions. If you have a problem with one or the other, it doesn’t quite matter which came first, just that you get help.

“On a wider stance I think it points to the fact that we really don’t know much about how Internet and technology are affecting peoples’ relationships and peoples’ way of thinking and behaving in general,” said Rodgers. “It’s all happened so fast. So there’s just so much more to understand.”