Villacci, of Dunwoody, said that when she started talking to Gianna last May about her dramatic weight loss, the teen admitted she “wanted it to look like the pictures she saw on Instagram and quick chat.”
Her mother said that as long as Gianna looked good in the dress, that was all she cared about.
Villaci said it took months of treatment for her to realize that her body needed proper nutrition to function, including carbohydrates and fats.
“She couldn’t have had a piece of celery with mustard on it or just had a clear broth soup all the time,” Villacci said.
According to the National Center for Health Research, 45% of teens like Gianna report being online “almost always” and another 44% say they’re online at least several times a day. In addition, nearly 25% of teens believe that social media mostly has a negative effect on them.
Facebook researchers found that 32% of teenage girls said Instagram made them feel worse about their bodies when they were experiencing physical insecurity.
Chris Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University, said that despite numerous claims to the contrary, there does not appear to be clear evidence of harm.
“I think it’s important to remember how many times we’ve heard this song, whether about video games, rock music, Dungeons and Dragons, or Harry Potter,” he said. “However, every time we jump into these technical panics.”
Ferguson recently conducted a large meta-analysis of studies with researchers at the American Psychological Association, the British Psychological Association, and the Psychological Association of Ireland.
“Overall, our conclusion was that screen use, including social media, was not a predictor of mental health outcomes,” he said.
Their findings were recently published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Occupational Psychology: Research and Practice.
While everyone’s mental health appears to be worse than we say, a decade ago, Ferguson said suicide rates registered the biggest jump among middle-aged adults.
Ferguson said that rather than looking at the broader picture, he thinks “a lot of people look at teen suicides and teen suicides in particular in a vacuum.
“It is very similar to the tale of blind men, each touching a part of the elephant and guessing what it is,” he said. “When we look at it this way, it’s hard to say that social media is a major variable influencing mental health.”
Ferguson believes that something bigger is happening and affecting everyone, and it may be a complex issue that runs between families and among peers rather than necessarily being touched upon via social media.
“Exposure to suicides in real life, whether through family or friends, is a much stronger predictor of suicide than social media use,” he said. While suicide in general shouldn’t blink, Ferguson said it’s important for parents not to be distracted by moral panic on social media and to try to understand why their teen has depression or other problems.
“There could be bullying, maybe there are family problems or it’s simply hereditary,” he said. “Parents should talk and listen to their teens and learn about available mental health services.”
What safeguards should parents take to prevent harm to their children?
Although restricting children’s media can be next to impossible, Ferguson said the best parents can do is talk to their children, help them understand some of the things that can go wrong with social media, and be careful about what they do. They publish it.
This includes not saying anything that might be seen as a threat even if they are angry, not sharing personal information and being wary of being drawn into negativity on some social media platforms.
Ferguson played down the Facebook studies, saying they weren’t very good.
“All they did was ask teenage girls what they thought Instagram was doing to them,” he said. “This is a bad way to approach this problem because people misattribute the cause of their behavior all the time, especially when they are presented as external scapegoats like the media.”
Additionally, he said, the question is pioneering.
In a good study, you might get a child’s social media use diary and then ask parents or teachers to fill out clinically validated mental health questionnaires.
“That wasn’t what the Facebook studies did, so it doesn’t really tell us anything of value,” Ferguson said. “It was basically a worthless exercise in moral panic.”
While his research doesn’t point to social media as a significant predictor of mental health, Ferguson said parents need to be mindful of their teen’s exposure to bullying, real-life suicides, and family conflict.
“For girls, dissatisfaction with the body is definitely a risk factor, although this appears to be related more to peer competition than anything to do with media exposure,” he said.
On it, neither Gianna nor her mother will deal with the matter.
Gianna said in an email that her journey with food did not end and she hopes sharing her story helps others.
“In this day and age, conformity to the so-called beauty standard of being ‘thin’ is shown in all forms of media: through Instagram, TikTok and even in friend groups,” she said. “Small comments like, ‘Yeah I haven’t eaten today yet’ or videos that include ‘body check’ have contaminated teen nutrition. Boys included.”
Gianna said that eating disorders not only discriminate, but can take many forms, including fasting, excessive exercise, and bingeing.
For her, it started with “a few exercises a week and I became more aware of what I ate, but it quickly turned to multiple exercises a day and constantly opening the calculator app when having a face-to-face meal.”
“I’m starting to get very fascinated by the idea of getting thinner makes me happier,” Gianna said.
She credits her mother with helping her see the light.
“Your body deserves to be nourished after all it does for you, and to be rude, you are slowly killing yourself,” she said. “This is why it is so important to ask for help or attention when someone else asks for help; the idea that ‘thinness’ is the only beauty standard is unrealistic and needs reshaping. It’s a really beautiful thing that we’re not all the same in shape and size and that we all contribute something. different to the idea of beauty.”
However, when it comes to social media affecting mental health, Ferguson said that sounds like a human problem rather than a technical one.
However, he said, there are certainly other legitimate concerns about social media. For example, Ferguson said social media could certainly give more power and influence to more extreme voices on both the left and the right and restriction of speech, amounting to effective censorship.
Tips for managing social media usage
Source: National Center for Health Research