The social media influence on young adolescent's eating behaviour

13 July, 2021
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Imagine the following situation: you are out for dinner with your friends. Looking at the menu a steak is calling your name and you decide to order it. When the waiter comes to take your orders, your friends go first. Plant-based after plant-based dish is written down by the waiter and finally it is your turn. What do you do? Will you stick to your initial order with meat or will you change your mind and follow what your social environment, your friends ordered?

Over 64% of people will change their mind when confronted with such a situation. The changing of the mind is not always related to peer pressure but also has something to do with our social construct. Our social environment has the most significant influence regarding our food choices and eating behavior. This relates to family, friends, culture and in most recent year’s social media (SM) (meaningfulfoodblog, 2019).
The average person now spends over two hours a day on different SM platforms (Statista, 2020), which makes it only natural that influencers and friends we follow affect our real-world decisions around our own well-being. Scrolling through ‘feeds’ now, it is impossible to not see pictures of recipes, food-related videos, or simply friends discussing what they had or will eat in the future. This phenomenon is backed up by the fact that the currently most liked picture on Instagram is that of an egg or that BuzzFeed’s Facebook page Tasty, which is food-oriented has more than 3.5 million followers, as well as the sheer amount of 1.7 billion pins on Pinterest are recipes (Arnold, 2019).
However, how much does the content of our ‘feed’ really change what we do in real life? And are these changes ultimately beneficial, or is there a darker unintended side to the food hype on SM? Therefore, the question to answer is:
How has the media, especially social media, influenced young adolescent’s eating behavior?

Food on SM has become a cult on its own, on Instagram alone the hashtag #avocado results in 3 million findings, Pinterest’s category of ‘food and drink’ is the most popular and YouTube has millions of channels dedicated to cooking (onebrandmagic, 2018). But why is that? Why are we so obsessed with culinary topics on SM platforms?
For us to understand the underlying notion of our obsession with #food on SM we first have to understand the psychological factors affecting our food consumption. As mentioned, what and how we are eating is strongly influenced by our social environment and therefore, our eating behaviour changes when we are with other people. When a new eating norm is recognized as relevant by our social constructs, we are also more likely to follow it. This behaviour is brought forward by other people, environmental factors and shared cultural expectations (Higgs and Thomas, 2016). This influence was previously generated through our close physical social constructs but through the advancing of digitalization our social environment has expanded to a global level.
Consumers have become reliant on digital platforms in every way. We began spending more time with our online lives than our real once. Because of that dramatic shift SM has risen exponentially since its invention and with it came the increase of new culinary topics. Plant-based diets for example have grown exponentially in the last three years, so much so, that almost 14% of the global population follow one such diet (Meyer, 2020).
These dramatic changes will only increase in the upcoming years. The synergy consumer trend report for 2021 splits consumers into five different categories: the food philosopher, the rebalancer, the game changer, the life hacker and the globetrotter. The philosopher and game changer are both trends directly involved with SM, whereas the other three have an indirect relation to food on SM (Synergy Inspiring Taste, 2020).
The food philosopher is all about healthy living and sustainable choices, meaning these consumers are willing to adopt plan-based diets either on full time or part time basis. This change is the result of the media covering more information about different culinary diets and what is considered healthy food (ibid).
The game changer is the most in tune with SM as 49% of them learn about new food and diets through their SM network. SM is hereby used as a tool to find inspiration for new recipes or ingredients, enhancing the influence of SM on food choices and eating behaviours (ibid).
Through these new consumer trends and changes it becomes clear how tremendous the influence of SM is on our relationship with food. New food trends and diets now exclusively start because of SM and not because of nutritionists or researchers.

Eat kale salad when your body needs it and chocolate when your heart wants it.
– Alivia D’Andrea 2018

A healthy diet, as described in the medical dictionary (2020) is a diet based on scientific nutritional principles where ‘good foods’ outweigh the ‘bad foods’.
Social constructs are key drivers of influencing our relationship with food as well as eating behaviours. Our current social environment has shifted from a physical small to a digital global scale manipulating our daily choices. Such great influence can have its positive aspects as studies have shown. SM users following people who promote healthy lifestyles have a 50% higher chance of following a ‘correct’ diet than people who do not follow such ‘influencers’ (Wen Yin and Moghavvemi, 2019).
Studies researching the power of SM on eating behaviours have evaluated its effectiveness in nudging young adolescents towards a healthier nutrition-rich behaviour. A systematic review undertook the challenge of evaluating studies researching the phenomena of SM influence. All studies showcased a positive relationship between SM usage and an increase of food intake of the marketed dishes. Most notably, increasing the fruit and vegetable intake of young adolescents was the easiest to manipulate (Hsu et al., 2018).
The same rules apply when it comes to a more sustainable consumption, the more users see their friends living sustainable and healthy, the more likely they are to follow such a lifestyle. Through the ease of spreading information sustainable living has seen a surge in followers. Consumers now more often than before go for an avocado toast (an issue in itself) than cheap take-out meals such as McDonalds (Simeone and Scarpato, 2020).
The strong influence of outsiders, often described as the negative side of SM, is able to influence people to make more conscious choices in regard to food and eating. That goes not only for healthy living but also when it comes to overcoming previous eating disorders (ED).
Studies show that people feel more motivated to eat healthy when being part of such an online community and being exposed to posts providing healthy food choices (Raggatt et al., 2018). This community feeling offers users support while sharing each other’s health journeys and failures. Especially the critical way of viewing information and ideals on SM was found to be beneficial for setting realistic performance-related goals and building a healthy relationship with food. “A lot of us know we’ll never be VS (Victoria Secret) angels so I think we are moving away from wanting to look like that and focusing on improving ourselves to what our body can achieve” (Female, 16) (ibid).

SM has without doubt its negative sites, as described below, however, in recent years SM became a relatively safe place to discuss health – mentally and physically (Jane et al., 2018). Often times a history of disorder eating is shameful and painful for the people involved, SM offers them an anonymous outlet to be vulnerable and receive support and encouragement from people all over the world. Accounts and blogs are also able to help people recovering from such disorders through breaking the food rules they have created due to their disorder. One such an example is which has created an inspiring community where people are able to break out of their self-made rigid eating rules. Her focus lies mostly on giving encouragement to ditch calorie counting and avoiding foods because, as she says, everything can be good as long as it is consumed in moderation (meaningfulfoodblog, 2019).

The digital innovation that set out to connect people, has slowly started to tear those people apart both from within and without.” ― Abhijit Naskar, The Gospel of Technology

Studies on the relationship between SM usage, negative body images and ED have been conducted for a long time. Initially, televisions and magazines were the primary forms of media which influenced food choices in adolescents. One study in particular showed routine exposure to food marketing is linked to young adolescents’ relationship towards food and eating. It concluded that in general the greater the exposure of adolescents to food marketing the higher the consumption of energy-dense and nutrient-poor (EDNP) foods (Scully et al., 2012).
In more recent times, the focus has shifted from television and magazines to digital marketing on SM. Most studies however focus on the relationship between SM and body image-related issues. A 2017 study involving almost 1,000 Australian middle school students looked at the relationship of SM and ED with adolescents. The findings showed that almost 50% of the boys and girls in the study exhibited ED behaviours. These results were also associated with the fact that participants who had an SM account showed increased susceptibility for disorder eating (Wilksch et al., 2020). Disorders found in this study included: eating small amounts or skipping meals, following strict meal plans and exercise routines, as well as an over-evaluation of shape and weight.
An example by Jordan Younger shows how Instagram can escalate a lifestyle of “healthy eating” into an eating disorder. She started to obsess over her diet to fit the standards set by the pictures she saw on Instagram (Ladin, 2016). However, it is not only Jordan who suffered from such conditions, around 30 million people in the United State suffer from ED. This number gets even more drastic seeing that the 30 million are from the age group of 18 to 20 years old (Kapil, 2020).
It is imperative for young adults and adolescents to have the correct nutritional intake and a balanced diet is crucial for long-term health and the development of correct eating habits. The nutritional needs during that age are higher than during any other time of their life. Due to the current social norms generated on SM the lifestyles are not conducive to encouraging young adults to eat in a healthy manner with the required nutritional intake for this period (Neumark-sztainer et al., 2018).
This nutritional deficit is not only generated through the increase of disorder eating but also through false information circulating on said platforms. ‘Influencers’ claiming to be experts on topics such as diets and healthy living are mostly not qualified professionals. Such inaccuracy leads to advertisement of unhealthy products deemed as healthy or tips such as “how to lose 5kg in one week”. Most of these so-called ‘tips’ are nonsensical and blatantly deceptive (meaningfulfoodblog, 2019). Products such as “weight loss teas” are often advertised by prominent celebrities like Kim Kardashian but conceal the truth that they are full of laxatives and caffeine which will not lead to weight loss but most certainly to a calorie deficit (Henning et al., 2018).
Overall speaking the internet and especially SM has an unforeseen dark side when it comes to adolescents and their behaviour towards food. Through the influences of their SM ‘feed’ and the advertisement on said platforms the connection between healthy living and eating gets distorted for young adults, resulting in negative impacts mentally and physically.

How has the media, especially SM, influenced young adolescent’s eating behavior?
In conclusion, the increase of food related content on SM is mostly a byproduct of the time we are living in. The growth of digitalization and with-it SM has enabled consumers to broaden their social environment from small scale to global. This expansion has allowed consumers to learn from one another and for new culinary diets to become popular. Especially ‘healthy living’ has increased through SM. Research has shown that a positive relationship exists between adolescent’s food choices and their SM. The more users see healthy food choices on their ‘feed’ the more likely they are to also follow such a lifestyle. Eating behaviors of adolescents are especially easy to influence in both positive and negative ways.
The positive side shows that young SM users are realizing that their ideals seen on SM will not be reachable for them. This realization and critical viewpoint of especially Instagram has enabled young people to focus on themselves and live in a way which is good for them mentally and physically. Support and the community feeling of SM allows for a growth environment wherein young adults can learn from others how to live healthy and where people suffering from ED are able to find sustenance.
However, SM not only helps people suffering from ED but also influences users to start disorder eating. Through false information and unrealistic body images adolescents are negatively impacted to follow such behavior. To look the way their ‘influencers’ look young people follow strict eating and exercise plans or skip meals all together, resulting in disorders such as bulimia. Even if young adults want to live healthy misinformation is frequent on SM and diets and ‘tips’ posted on such platforms are often incorrect, leading involuntarily to a calorie deficit.
Previously the negative side of SM on young adolescents eating behavior outweighed the positive. However, a psychological shift has started where young adults do not necessarily strive to look like their idols but are starting to focus on their own body and are setting goals within their reach. To support this positive notion SM platforms have started to take responsibility for their power over young people. New policies protecting adolescents from specific weight loss products or cosmetic procedure are now in place and will be further enhanced. Furthermore, people are able to report false or problematic content which will be checked and sometimes even removed entirely (Kapil, 2020). With this increase of regulation the negative sides of SM are predicted to decrease however, will never fully disappear.
Answering the question HOW SM has influenced adolescents eating behavior, is difficult as it is mainly focused on individuals. The two major sections identified are the positive and negative impact SM has on young adults. The specific influence of SM is different for each section and ranges from symptoms such as strict meal plans over bulimia to living a healthy and sustainable way. However, answering the question IF SM influences young adults’ relationship towards food is easy: YES.

- Rieke Mantwitz

About the author

Hotelschool The Hague

Hotelschool The Hague was founded and funded in 1929 by the hospitality industry to create a central place where industry partners could gain and share new insight, skills and knowledge. Since its foundation, Hotelschool The Hague has become an international hospitality business school specialised in hospitality management, offering a 4-year Bachelor in Hospitality Management. This degree course is also available as the accelerated International Fast Track programme. Our 13-month MBA in Hospitality Management is designed to deliver the next generation of hospitality innovators.

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