The Internet is the new baggie sweatshirt

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.”