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New survey of pediatricians aims to uncover children and teen’s use of appearance- and performance-enhancing substances and links to mental and physical health

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Assistant Professor Kyle Ganson

A leading social work researcher of body image and eating disorders among boys and men, Kyle T. Ganson, has been investigating the growing use of drugs and other substances designed to enhance performance and muscularity, such as anabolic-androgenic steroids, protein supplements, and creatine. His work is uncovering serious psychological, social and physical conditions associated with their use.  

Now, the assistant professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work is embarking on a unique collaboration with pediatricians to document health issues in children and adolescents who use appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs and substances. The newly launched study will help both social workers and physicians better prevent, identify and treat the adverse effects associated with the pathological pursuit of a muscular physique.  

“Youth are increasingly turning to drugs, such as steroids, or legal performance-enhancing substances, like protein powders and creatine, in part due to pressures to achieve an ideal body type,” says Ganson. “Partnering with physicians to understand whether they are asking children and teens about the use of these substances and, if so, whether those that use them have also experienced adverse medical events, will help deepen our knowledge on how to address associated problems, from policy to practice.” 

The results of Ganson’s previous research have highlighted an urgent need for further study on appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs and substances. In 2022, he led the first large-scale study on the use of anabolic-androgenic steroids among young adults in Canada. This research found that the use of this illegal drug among adolescents and young adults is common and associated with symptoms of dependence and serious side effects, such as insomnia, increased blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels. 

Ganson’s growing body of research has also found that muscle dysmorphia — characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with muscularity and a dissatisfaction with one’s body size — is increasingly prevalent among boys and young men, with social media use linked to increased symptoms. Findings from Ganson’s studies have been covered nationally and internationally by CNN, The Atlantic, Global TV, CTV News, CBC, the Toronto Star, and the Hindustan Times. 

For his new study Ganson has teamed up with Debra K. Katzman, a professor of pediatrics at the Hospital for Sick Children. The pair of principal investigators are partnering with the Canadian Pediatric Surveillance Program, which regularly surveys members of the Canadian Pediatric Society to document common health issues among children and adolescents. The survey will reach the Program’s network of over 3,000 pediatricians.  

“Being able to access the insight of this large group of physicians is incredible,” says Ganson. “Addressing muscle dysmorphia, eating disorders and the adverse effects associated with appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs and substances will require interdisciplinary collaboration, with social workers playing a key role.” 

In addition to publishing the results of their study in an academic journal, Ganson and his collaborators will prepare a report to share with pediatricians and social workers. The knowledge they glean will also help raise awareness among youth and parents about the risks involved in using appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs and substances so they can make informed choices moving forward. 

Watch for results to be shared in the near future.