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Social Media and “Weight Talk”

The Internet offers plenty of opportunity to share helpful, positive content. However, it’s also a hotbed of negativity, especially when it comes to discussions on weight.

A study facilitated by researchers at the National Institutes of Health in Rockville, Maryland, wanted to understand the types of conversations that are taking place on this subject. Using a commercial Web-crawling tool, the investigators explored popular social media sites and pulled posts that included fat, obese/obesity and/or overweight. The process lasted 60 days and culminated in 1.37 million posts.

The researchers found that fat appeared in 92% of the posts, while obese/obesity and overweight were present in just 6% and 2% of posts, respectively. Twitter presented the most talk on weight; the site produced 91% of retrieved data, and the word fat was found in 92% of related posts. Of the nearly 57,000 relevant Facebook posts, 90% included fat. The researchers noted that Facebook posts tended to be more self-referential, whereas Twitter posts were more often directed at others and could be perceived as cyber-bullying.

“In comparison, the keywords were more evenly distributed on blogs, forums, and comments. For instance, ‘obese/obesity’ appears in 24% of forum posts, and ‘overweight’ appears in 6% of forum posts, suggesting more varying themes in these channels as compared to Twitter and Facebook,” the authors noted.

They added that the majority of positive discussion on the topic was found in forums and blog posts.

“Our analysis also noted the distinct ways in which social media channels function, pointing to the need for those designing health interventions to consider the accessibility and feasibility of particular channels,” they concluded.

The study was published in Translational Behavioral Medicine (2014; 4, 314–23).

Editor’s note: For more on this topic, see “Social Media and Body Image: A Complicated Relationship” by Amanda Vogel, MA, in this issue.

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