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Eating Disorders and the Impact of Social Media

Updated: Feb 28, 2023



Let’s face it—most of us don’t go more than five minutes without picking up our cell phones. We’ve developed an undeniable urge to check our notifications, answer a text, or see how many likes our latest social media post racked up.


Social media has become an everyday staple for many young people whose lives often revolve around it. From the surface, it seems harmless. An easy way to keep in touch with friends and family, a place to showcase creativity, explore new ideas, and connect with others in ways never before possible. Unfortunately, not all the impacts of social media are positive. It has become a negative and sometimes dangerous influence in the lives of many, especially malleable teens and young adults and those already struggling with their mental health.


Filters and Influencers: The reach for impossible goals


It has become more apparent as social media use increases, platforms, including Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and TikTok, can play a role in developing or encouraging eating disorders. While it may not be a direct cause, for those with low self-esteem and body image issues, spending time on social media can put them in a downward spiral.


According to a survey from a local town, 37% of young girls feel stressed about looking attractive, and 25% of young girls feel pressure regarding measuring up to others in their social media appearance.


What are people seeing on social media that makes them feel this way? Look at influencers, the people who have gained a large following based on their content. These influencers flood social media, and their lives appear to be flawless. The problem is, while the image they portray is often unattainable, it’s hard to resist the urge to compare ourselves to them and want what they have. Fashion, fitness, and beauty influencers have been accused of promoting eating disorders. Their content often revolves around being and staying skinny, drawing young users into extreme online communities centered around problematic eating behaviors, which can lead to eating disorders.


Influencers aren’t the only concern. Social media provides tools that allow anyone to beautify themselves. Many sites utilize filters, giving a way to edit and perfect our appearance easily. Users now scroll through social media sites and see their friends and peers looking flawless, fueling a new type of envy. This instills the idea that our image can always be improved and can cause people to experience dysmorphia, the idea that there is something fundamentally flawed in their appearance.


For many young girls, time on social media is solely spent comparing themselves to others, whether friends or influencers, decreasing their self-esteem. In fact, one study found that girls who spend more time looking at pictures on Facebook reported higher weight dissatisfaction and self-objectification.


While eating disorders can affect both males and females, local surveys show that middle and high school females were more likely than males to report feeling left out or excluded, feeling worse about themselves, or feeling unsafe because of something said to them on social media. They also report having seen something inappropriate and having difficulty stopping their use. In fact, in one local town, 30.2% of students in grades 9-12 said they felt worse about themselves after using social media.


The response from social sites

Influencers and peer envy aren’t the only red flags. Groups have also been found on social media, particularly Snapchat, that work to encourage others to pursue dangerous eating habits and then provide negative feedback and bullying if the person does not meet their fitness/diet goals.


While many social media platforms have attempted to erase and block all content that may trigger negative thoughts, it is difficult to regulate as it can be subjective; what is triggering to one person may not be triggering to another. Some influencers feel they have a right to share their stories or struggles, and social sites such as TikTok promote the sharing of their journeys.


Sites such as YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram have policies that prohibit eating disorders, and sites are starting to add information to the National Eating Disorder helpline when users search for terms related to eating disorders. Still, many people feel algorithms should be stronger when monitoring this content. It’s easy for users to come across this content when they have no intentions and can potentially be harmed by it. Source


Encouraging healthy social media use

Since social media is already intricately intertwined in society, it’s important to encourage healthy habits when it comes to use.


First, take a look at yourself. Their parents' behavior largely influences children, and if they see you using social media often, taking lots of pictures, and talking about likes, they are bound to do the same. Encourage your kids to be present in the moment and not see life only through the lens of their camera.


It can also be helpful to teach kids to stop and think before picking up their phones. If they are feeling stressed or anxious, it may not be the best time to go on social media and come across potentially triggering content. Teach them to be intentional and have a plan for what they are looking for and how long they will use the site, and to be self-aware. If something makes them feel uncomfortable or ignites self-doubt, put the phone down.



Eating Disorder Warning signs

In addition to social media, many factors contribute to eating disorders, so it’s important to know the warning signs and symptoms to seek treatment in the earliest stages. The chance for recovery is greater the earlier a disorder is detected.


Symptoms may look different from person to person; however, common emotional and behavioral warning signs include:

  • Changes in behavior and attitude indicating weight loss, dieting, and control of food

  • Preoccupation with weight, food, and calorie count

  • Refusal to eat certain foods

  • Being uncomfortable eating around others

  • Food rituals, such as excessive chewing or cutting food into small pieces

  • Skipping meals or taking small portions

  • Withdrawal from friends and activities

  • Dieting

  • Concerns about body size and shape

  • Mood swings

  • Frequently looking in the mirror for flaws in appearance

It’s also important to look for physical symptoms, such as noticeable fluctuations in weight, cramping, dizziness, fainting, sleep problems, weakness, and impaired immune functioning.


Click here for a full list of symptoms categorized by certain eating disorders.


Resources

Download The Hub Resource Guides to find local treatment and support. You can also visit the National Eating Disorders Association for information on resources, prevention, and treatment.


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