Severe food intake restriction, dieting, exercising, fasting, using diet pills and other eating disorders may be contagious. Research conducted in 1980 on female college students first suggested that disordered eating behaviour spread through “social contagion”, BBC radio reported. To understand the link between social influence and eating habits of adolescents, American researchers investigated weight control and eating disorders in 15,349 high school students.
The weight control and eating disorders included dieting, exercising, fasting, using diet pills and purging to control weight in the last 30 days. The degree of clustering among students who belonged to the same geographical region was analysed using statistics. The reports showed that there was indeed a small but significant clustering effect. A pair of students from the same geographical region was 4-10 per cent more likely to share an eating-disordered behaviour when compared to pairs in which each person came from different regions.
However, no clustering was seen for purging, possibly due to the secretive and less socially acceptable nature of this behaviour. The findings also revealed that among all participants, the magnitude of clustering was stronger for female students than male students; for example, to become thin, female teenagers sometimes used unhealthy behaviour purely out of social influence. The clustering of weight control and eating disorder behaviour in the participants confirms evidence of a social contagion effect which may be attributed to peer pressure, information sharing and students modelling their behaviour on one another.