To limit media exposure, you may have to tune out kids’ friends, not just the TV

Wary parents will have to do more than unplug the television if they want to avoid the negative influence of the media on teens.

A new study shows that “secondhand exposure,” or having a lot of friends who watch television, may be more harmful when it comes to body image.Much like the concept of secondhand smoke, some adolescents experienced its effect without even owning a television.

“What is going on in a friend’s home is as significant as what is going on in your own home,” says Anne Becker, lead author and vice chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine examined the link between media exposure and eating disorders in Fiji among girls ages 15 to 20.

Access to television was the biggest factor in determining whether the girls developed eating disorder symptoms, the study found.The changing attitudes of the girls who had been exposed to television were more powerful than those who actually watched TV themselves.

“This tells us that it is no longer a personal choice and there are innocent victims,” Becker says.

This is the first study that attempted to quantify the role of social networks in spreading the negative consequences of media consumption on eating disorders, according toBecker. The study appears inthecurrent edition ofthe British Journal of Psychiatry.

Although adolescents in America have been exposed to television for years, Becker says she’s confident that if the effects could happen in Fiji, they could happen here. “It warrants concern – we need to reframe the facts that we are giving to parents.”

To create positive eating habits, teens will have to change the way they perceive celebrities, says Christine M. Palumbo, a registered dietician in Chicago and Chicago Parent nutrition columnist.

“Celebrities are carefully crafted images,” she says.”Their bodies are their careers, and they spend an inordinate amount of time working on them.”

In America, eating disorders often run in families, Palumbo says. What parents say, especially mothers, is emphasized like a “megaphone.”

“Mothers should not announce how fat they feel and they should enjoy a variety of foods without apology – it’s OK to have a doughnut, or butter on your popcorn,” she says.

This is the point where parents and consumers need to have a voice about what is on their television, Becker says. “Content can be safe. All it takes is concerned consumers.”

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