Our researchers evaluated Media Smart in one of the largest and longest eating disorder prevention studies that has ever been conducted around the world. This involved 24 classes of Year 8 students (540 people) where half the classes received the program and the other half did not. Students completed questionnaires of eating disorder risk factors on 4 occasions:
- before the program started
- after the program finished
- six months after the program finished
- 2.5 years after the program finished
We found that those who received the program, on average had significantly lower scores on 6 of the 9 eating disorder risk factors measured across the post-program and follow-up periods.
Early adolescence is usually a time when scores on eating disorder risk factors increase. Media Smart participants experienced a drop in scores as a result of the program and stayed well below control participants over the duration of the study.
Our findings were extremely positive compared to other prevention research. Many programs have found no benefit whatsoever, and it has even been suggested that some have caused harm. For those who do find benefit at post-program, often these benefits have disappeared by 6- or 12-month follow-up. Many researchers now do prevention work with females-only, above the age of 15 (often university students), who already show high body dissatisfaction and early signs of disordered eating as there is more statistical scope to achieve impressive findings with these types of audiences.
Our research shows however that it is possible to achieve a lasting benefit with mixed gender, younger audiences who don’t already have high body dissatisfaction.
What about obesity?
There is a strong concern about obesity in our society. Recent research has suggested there are some risk factors that apply to both eating disorders and obesity. Thus we conducted the Prevention Across the Spectrum trial where we looked at whether Media Smart and 2 other programs could reduce risk factors for both eating disorders and obesity in 1,316 Year 7 and 8 students. Media Smart was the superior program showing benefits on a range of risk factors including important obesity risk factors such as physical activity and screen time. In addition, Media Smart girls had half the risk of control girls of developing clinical concerns about their body shape and weight at 12-month follow-up. This is an extremely encouraging finding given this is regarded as the most important eating disorder risk factor, and as a key therapy target in people with eating disorders.