HUNTER students are playing a key role in a world-first study investigating teenage body image.
About 12,000 students from the region are participating in The EveryBODY Study, which aims to help researchers detect the rates of eating disorders, muscle dysmorphia and obesity in young people, as well as identify risk factors in order to develop effective prevention programs.
The longitudinal study, conducted by Macquarie University, would offer the most comprehensive research on the body image concerns of Australian adolescents to date, lead researcher Dr Deborah Mitchison said.
“We have really bad epidemiological data on eating disorders in general, and for adolescents in particular,” she said. “It is a shame, because adolescence is the peak age for the onset of eating disorders and body image concerns.”
In Mission Australia’s annual Youth Survey, body image was consistently one of the top three concerns of respondents, Dr Mitchison said.
The three-year study would look into risk factors such as the effects of social media and bullying, and offer the first data into the rates of muscle dysmorphia – an unrealistic preoccupation with “not being muscly enough.”
“There is no data at all, no risk factor research,” Dr Mitchison said.
“There are not even treatment models because there is no evidence base behind it.
“This study will help us educate the people who need to be educated – GPs, schools, and parents – in order to identify all kinds of eating disorders early and get them into treatment.”
Dr Mitchison said current prevention programs in schools were well-intentioned, but cast a “wide net.”
“If we can develop programs that we know target known risk factors, then we know that they will have more success,” she said.
All but two of the participating schools are from the Hunter Region. It involves students from Years 7 to 12 completing a 40-minute survey, which they would repeat each year for three years.
Victoria Gill and Liam Kelly, the school captains at Hunter Valley Grammar School, said the study’s survey covered a broad range of issues that were relevant to their age group.
“There were a lot of questions about mental health and body image, what kinds of things you look at on social media, and whether you follow fad diets,” Ms Gill said.
“There are things on social media now that makes boys feel they need that buff, manly-looking stature, so we’re seeing more males affected, but hopefully this survey will help get to the core of the issues,” Mr Kelly said.
Dr Mitchison said studies done to date had focused on the “stereotype” that inspires an image of a young, emaciated woman with anorexia standing in front of a mirror, seeing a “fat person” looking back at them.
“But anorexia nervosa is actually the rarest of the eating disorders, and the burden of eating disorders goes much further than that. Obese people are much more likely to be affected by eating disorders,” she said.
“It’s a huge public health problem that needs to be addressed.
“We are trying to break the stereotypes.”
Dr Mitchison said this longitudinal study would offer “really rich data,” not just about knowing how common eating and body disorders are, but also whether they were increasing over time, and what predicted their development.
“That kind of research is really rare,” she said.
“But it’s also a first in terms of the size. Usually we are lucky to get 3000 people in a trial. I didn’t predict that we’d get such a huge response.”
Dr Mitchison said while a “lot of positives” could be taken from social media in terms of connecting family and friends, some behaviours were more concerning.
“Like taking selfies, editing your selfies and monitoring the profile that people see in terms of how you look, and then looking at how many likes and the types of comments you are getting, that may increase risk,” she said.
“And with bullying, it can go either way – kids can be bullied for being overweight, or bullied for being underweight.”
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