Everyday we are bombarded with perfect, manipulated, filtered and digitally enhanced images. One of the risks of this intense exposure to media is the pressure felt by many to adhere to these ideals of beauty and appearance.
Enhancing media literacy, which provides education on the media’s promotion of unrealistic standards of ‘beauty’, is therefore vital so people can learn to critically analyse media messages and thus reduce the risk of developing eating disorders.
Eating Disorders and the Media
A common misconception is that media causes eating disorders. This is not true and to suggest it trivialises the complexity of how an eating disorder develops.
However, being exposed to the beauty and appearance ideals presented in the media can increase body dissatisfaction, encourage weight-loss practices and can increase the internalisation of the thin ideal, all of which are known modifiable risk factors of eating disorders.
What research also confirms is that these factors can positively be addressed with evidence based and evaluated media literacy programs.
What is Media Literacy
When we use the term ‘Media Literacy’ we are referring to someone’s ability to critically access, analyse, evaluate and create media. Someone who is media literate will also be able to better understand and in turn challenge the often complex messages concealed within the many media mediums; television, magazines, books, music and music videos, video games, the internet and social media.
Media Literacy and Prevention
Media literacy is particularly important for our body image, our eating behaviours and our values around weight, shape and appearance. Effective media literacy education empowers the development of critical thinking that supports, particularly young people, to:
- Understand the role media plays in shaping our society views on beauty, health and appearance
- Identify how marketing and advertising works and the persuasive techniques used
- Recognise the bias, misinformation and the ways they can be manipulated
- Develop media messages that are positive and helpful
- Become an advocate for media justice
- Apply critical thinking to a wide range of issues.
Importance of Evidence-Based Programs
Media literacy provides educators and those working with young people an enjoyable, relatable and effective platform to address challenging topics in a positive and helpful way. It is recommended that educators or those working with young people refer to existing evidence based and evaluated programs.
Indeed, prevention programs are not all equally successful. Research shows that 51% of eating disorder prevention programs actually reduced eating disorder risk factors and 29% reduced current or future eating pathology.
Some programs which are supported by research based evidence include MediaSmart, Happy Being Me, Everybody’s different, The Body Project, Student Bodies (a good resource for teacher education), Y’s Girls, Planet Health, Healthy Buddies and 5-2-1-Go.
You can read about the structure and target audience of each program and find where to access it at Programs.
Media literacy can also be extended and incorporated well beyond a classroom or youth setting. People, of all ages, in other environments such as the home, peer/friendship groups and workplace can benefit when media messaging is challenged.
Preventing Eating Disorders
‘Prevention’ refers to specific programs or interventions designed to reduce risk factors, enhance protective factors and ultimately stop the increasing rate of eating disorders in our society. Early diagnosis, prevention programs and appropriate cost-effective treatments have proven to greatly reduce the impact of an eating disorder.
Primary prevention interventions aim to prevent the onset or development of an eating disorder and may be universal, selective or indicated. While the aims of all these interventions can vary slightly, they do share common goals that are focused on enhancing the prevention of eating disorders in general.
Secondary prevention interventions aim to lower the severity and duration of an eating disorder in a person who already has the illness. There is considerable overlap between indicated prevention and secondary prevention, with both methods sharing various aims and targeting similar groups.
In our society, a large percentage of young women and men engage in disordered eating behaviour. Disordered eating behaviours develop in response to high levels of body dissatisfaction and weight concerns and can lead to serious physical, psychological and social problems.