Research Highlight: How Our Youth Are Coping

ARCSON faculty researches disordered eating, stress and social media.

By Irina du Quenoy

From the pressures of social media to the stressful regional environment, young people in Lebanon face everyday challenges that directly affect their physical and mental wellbeing. To address this issue, LAU Assistant Professor of Nursing Rita Doumit has worked with colleagues across disciplines on a variety of research projects focused on promoting healthy behavior among youth, especially in the areas of eating and stress.

For example, together with Drs. Nadine Zeeni, coordinator of LAU’s Nutrition Program, and Maria-Jose Sanchez-Ruiz, associate professor of psychology, Doumit recently completed a study published in Community Mental Health Journal looking into predictors of disordered eating (DE) in young males. Not to be confused with eating disorders (ED), which include the better-known anorexia and bulimia nervosa, DE refers to altered eating patterns, including binge eating, extreme dieting, and inappropriate weight-loss techniques.

“It was previously believed that DE primarily affects females,” says Doumit. “But over the last decade, it was revealed that a substantial number of men suffer from the condition. For example, a recent review paper revealed that 42 to 45 percent of individuals engaging in binge eating were males!” In what is likely the first effort to investigate psychosocial predictors of DE in Middle Eastern males, Doumit and her colleagues surveyed 260 male Lebanese university students between the ages of 17 and 33.

“We found that media influence and strategies to decrease body weight had a direct effect on depressive symptomology,” shares Doumit. “This in turn predicted emotional eating among young men.”

“Dr. Doumit’s program of research in promoting healthy behaviors in the area of eating and stress management among our youth is extremely important given the seriousness of the problem in our region and worldwide,” says Dr. Anahid Kulwicki, dean of the Alice Ramez Chagoury School of Nursing at LAU. “Our youth is especially vulnerable due to additional stresses related to political and economic instability in the region.”

Doumit’s interest in reducing stress among adolescents inspired an earlier project funded by the World Health Organization. Together with her former student Chant Kazandjian, Doumit completed a pilot project aimed at improving mental-health outcomes and quality of life among young Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Previously covered by LAU’s website news, the intervention program helped 34 Syrian refugees from 13 to 17 years of age reduce anxiety and depression, leading to reported increases in their quality of life.

Based on the project’s results, “We aim to implement this program on a national scale to help provide Lebanese adolescents with stress-reducing skills that they can use throughout their lives,” Doumit says. “For example, how to turn negative thoughts into positive ones.”

In a third recent project, Doumit’s dual interest in healthy eating and stress reduction led her to investigate the relationship between young people’s use of different types of media and body image dissatisfaction, eating disorders and healthy eating. Together with Drs. Zeeni and Sanchez-Ruiz, she surveyed a sample of 244 Lebanese undergraduate students ages 16 to 21 and discovered that “using mobile phone multimedia is associated with unhealthy eating and stress.”

The study, which was accepted as an article in the journal Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing revealed that “Social media use is associated with body image dissatisfaction (BID), the risk of eating disorders (ED), and lowered self-control.” Even worse, these risks are exacerbated when students are faced with the prospect of separation from technological devices.

The good news is that, once the risks of technology use have been identified, strategies can be put in place to reduce their deleterious effects. The study “discussed the practical implications of setting limits and boundaries on technology during childhood and adolescence, as well as encouraging healthy eating and physical activity at home and on college campuses,” says Doumit. It also found that social media itself could be used as “a platform for intervention and prevention programs” to decrease the prevalence of BID and ED, as well as depression and anxiety.