The cross-sectional survey published in the peer-reviewed journal Appetite and conducted by researchers at Aston University's School of Life and Health Sciences, asked 369 male and female college students to estimate the amount of fruit, vegetables, 'energy-dense snacks' and sugary drinks their Facebook peers consumed on a daily basis.
Researchers found that the study's participants ate an extra fifth of the portion of fruit and vegetables themselves for every portion they believed their social media peers consumed.
This information was cross-referenced with the participants' own actual eating habits and showed that those who felt their social circles 'approved' of eating junk food consumed significantly more themselves. Meanwhile, those who thought their friends ate a healthy diet ate more portions of fruit and vegetables. Their perceptions could have come from seeing friends' posts about the food and drink they consumed, or simply a general impression of their overall health, according to researchers.
There was no significant link between the participants' eating habits and their BMI, however, according to the study.
"These findings suggest that perceived norms concerning actual consumption and norms related to approval may guide consumption of low and high energy-dense foods and beverages differently," researches said in the study.
"If we believe our friends are eating plenty of fruit and vegetables we're more likely to eat fruit and veg ourselves. On the other hand, if we feel they're happy to consume lots of snacks and sugary drinks, it can give us a 'license to overeat' foods that are bad for our health," commented PhD student Lily Hawkins, who led the study alongside supervisor Dr. Jason Thomas.
"The implication is that we can use social media as a tool to 'nudge' each other's eating behavior within friendship groups, and potentially use this knowledge as a tool for public health interventions."
Professor Claire Farrow, director of Aston University's Applied Health Research Group, added, "With children and young people spending a huge amount of time interacting with peers and influencers via social media, the important new findings from this study could help shape how we deliver interventions that help them adopt healthy eating habits from a young age -- and stick with them for life."
The researchers said the next stage of their work would track a participant group over time to see whether the influence of social media on eating habits had a longer-term impact on weight.
Read the study HERE.