Social media exposes individuals to unrealistic beauty ideals which increases the likelihood of developing eating disorders and related body image disturbance. Research shows that people in the top 25% of social media usage are more than twice as susceptible to eating disorders.13
What Are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders impact people of any age, gender, culture, or socioeconomic background. They are serious psychological conditions characterized by abnormal eating habits. Individuals who suffer with these conditions often have preoccupations with food and body image. These disorders can have serious physical and psychological consequences over time if left untreated.
Examples of Eating Disorders
All eating disorders can be impacted by social media, including anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and binge eating disorder.
Common eating disorders seen in clinical settings are:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Binge eating disorder
- Other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED)
Impact of Social Media On Eating Disorders
For years, professionals in the eating disorder community have been aware of pro-ana websites. These websites, blogs and chat forums are designed to promote eating disordered behavior among those with anorexia and bulimia. Unfortunately, these messages are no longer limited to easily monitored websites.
They have migrated to the ever-changing media sites such as Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr. This makes pro-eating disorder content more easily accessible to those seeking online role-models to emulate regarding standards of beauty and fitness.3
4 Ways Social Media Can Trigger an Eating Disorder
There are many ways that social media exposure can trigger eating disorders, including creating a distorted perception of reality, isolation, exclusion, and cyberbullying.
Here are ways social media can trigger an eating disorder:
1. An Unrealistic Perception of What Is Normal
The regular and constant exposure to edited and photo-shopped images of ultra-thin and “perfect” bodies, both male and female, gives individuals the impression that they must look like that to be accepted. Young people have a hard time recognizing that these images aren’t an accurate reflection of reality. What’s seen online is that which people have spent hours working to present to the public.
Adolescence is a time when acceptance is important. Social media is designed to reward those who are seen as beautiful and popular through increased followers and “likes.” Attempting to conform to societal beauty standards to gain this much sought-after acceptance can lead to disordered eating.
2. Pro-Anorexia & Pro-Bulimia Content
The existence of pro-eating disorder sites that promote anorexic and bulimic behavior among their followers certainly can trigger eating disorders. The purpose of these sites is to encourage people to engage in eating disorder behaviors such as restricting and excessive exercise to gain extremely thin bodies.
Images of emaciated individuals are posted as motivation for young people (i.e., “thinspo”) to motivate them to stick to their restrictive eating plans and become more “successful” with these disorders that they call lifestyles. These types of images, tips, and tricks can be found on many social media platforms such as Pinterest, YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram.
As many as 65% of those with eating disorders report that bullying contributed to the development of their disorders.7 Cyberbullying does not necessarily cause eating disorders, but it most certainly exacerbates conditions that lead to them by reducing self-esteem and increasing body dissatisfaction.
Those whose bodies deviate from the socially accepted standards of fitness and beauty are often subjected to fat shaming on social media platforms.
4. Isolation & Exclusion
Research shows that adults with eating disorders often have small social networks and may struggle with social functioning while those in recovery report the importance of a strong social support.8 Social media posts of friends engaging in activities without you can create a phenomenon known as FOMO (fear of missing out).
Feeling left out or socially isolated can lead individuals to engage in eating disordered behaviors when they attribute a lack of friends to their perceived flawed appearance. They may believe that if they improve their level of attractiveness, they will become more popular, gain more friends, or finally have a significant other.
Popular Choices For Online Therapy
BetterHelp – Best For Those “On A Budget”
Online-Therapy.com – Best For Multiple Sessions Per Week
According to 14 Best Therapy Services (updated on 1/16/2023), Choosing Therapy partners with leading mental health companies and is compensated for marketing by BetterHelp and Online-Therapy.
Examples of Social Media & Eating Disorders
The story of individuals developing and maintaining eating disorders due to social media is so common for the eating disorder specialist that we have come to expect it. When conducting intake assessments, evaluating social media usage is common.
Therapists and registered dietitians ask about pro-ana sites and which Instagram influencers a client follows so recommendations can be made about appropriate social media usage as soon as possible.
Here are two examples of social media and eating disorders:
1. Jane, Age 16
Jane is a sixteen-year-old female who developed anorexia after she began following clean lifestyle influencers on Instagram. The adolescent reported that she had previously struggled with negative body image due to being slightly overweight. Jane saw clean eating as her answer to what she perceived as a weight problem. She began eliminating food groups from her diet and compulsively exercising throughout the week.
Jane religiously followed Instagram hashtags related to losing weight as well as YouTube videos about how to be “successful” at anorexia. After losing an alarming amount of weight, her pediatrician suggested that she seek professional counseling for a potential eating disorder. This is how Jane eventually entered into treatment for anorexia.
Following approximately 18 months of specialized treatment with a therapist and dietitian, she is doing well enough to only require periodic check-ins with her team for maintenance and relapse prevention.
2. Nicole, Age 22
A twenty-two-year-old student, Nicole, was interviewed in a 2018 documentary entitled, “The Social Media Cult.”10 She describes how social media led to the development of her eating disorder. Paula Irene-Villa, sociologist, shares that most people fall short when they compare themselves to others on social media.10 Nicole used Instagram for what she calls “thinspo.” As a result of her social media usage, Nicole became anorexic.
She began each day by looking at images on social media of anorexic girls to motivate herself to continue dieting and exercising excessively. This resulted in consequences such as thinning hair, cold body temperature, and a poor quality of life. She eventually sought out therapy. Nicole is now recovered and speaking out against the dangers of social media.
Social media can cause people to believe that “normal” people can look like fashion models due to the edited images that are seen on sites like Instagram. She has now shifted her social media focus to sites that promote body positivity. This helps her feel more comfortable about herself because she follows those with similar body types. Nicole can now see that others like herself are beautiful too.
6 Ways to Stay Healthy On Social Media While Dealing With an Eating Disorder
While there are certainly dangers associated with social media usage, there are ways to use it responsibly and healthfully. Over 70% of Americans use some type of social media platform regularly such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or Twitter.9 It is important to learn to use social media responsibly.
Healthy ways to interact with social media when dealing with an eating disorder are:
1. Unfollow Bad Influences & Bullies
Make a point to unfollow individuals or sites that promote unhealthy attitudes about food, weight, or exercise. Blocking social media users who are prone to body shaming and bullying is a must.
2. Follow Sites That Encourage Body Positivity
There are healthy social media sites that encourage body positivity and a healthy attitude of self-love and respect. These are preferred over a constant barrage of ultra-thin models and sites that encourage excessive diet and exercise.
3. Stay Connected to Loved Ones
Utilize social media to stay connected with friends and loved ones. Social media does allow us to keep in touch in real time. Use social media to form and maintain a network of supportive people.
4. Take Breaks Often
Learn how to take a social media break when/if other aspects of your life or recovery demand more of your time. Time management is an important aspect of maintaining balance, especially when most people will spend an average of five years over their lifespan using social media.1
5. Don’t Judge Others’ Posts or Appearances
Refrain from judging others’ opinions or appearances on social media. Do not follow or support others who do. If you observe others engaging in body shaming, speak up about it. Chat rooms, groups, or sites that participate in this type of behavior are not healthy for anyone, least of all someone with an eating disorder.
6. “Like” the Positive Messages You See
Reinforce others’ positive messages and accomplishments with the “like” button. Use this social media tool to support others in a healthy and meaningful way. Avoid feeding into unhealthy social norms by using the like button to promote damaging messages about body, weight, and appearance-based acceptance.
How to Get Help for an Eating Disorder
Eating disorders are serious, but treatable conditions. If you or someone you care about is struggling with an eating disorder, schedule an evaluation with a licensed professional counselor, registered dietitian, or physician specializing in eating disorders. There are varying levels of care available depending upon the severity of the individual’s condition.
Individual therapists, dietitians and even treatment centers who have specialized experience in treating eating disorders are available. Find a therapist through an online therapist directory. You can also contact your insurance carrier to ask for a list of qualified providers in your area.
How to Get Help For a Loved One With an Eating Disorder
The first step in getting help for a loved one is to approach them with your concerns about a suspected eating disorder. There are online resources available to assist you and your loved one in locating qualified professionals to treat their condition. Starting with a certified eating disorders specialist (CEDS) is a good call after a decision to seek out care has been made.
This professional can make an assessment about the severity of the eating disorder and what other professionals may be needed as a part of a multidisciplinary treatment team. The treatment team will likely include a licensed therapist, a registered dietitian, a primary care physician, and a psychiatrist if medications are prescribed for co-occurring disorders. You can locate eating disorder specialists through online directories, websites, or by calling your insurance carrier.
Your therapist and other team members will also assist you in determining the level of care that it is needed to treat your loved one’s eating disorder. This will depend upon the severity of their condition. There are several levels of care including outpatient therapy, intensive outpatient therapy, and residential/inpatient hospitalization.
How to Get Help For a Child With an Eating Disorder
The first step to getting help for a child with an eating disorder is to either schedule an appointment with their pediatrician for a referral to a qualified therapist or seek out a certified eating disorders specialist (CEDS). If possible, this is the best type of professional to seek out for care. Consult your insurance carrier for a list of local providers or utilize online directories to locate nearby professionals.
A therapist will assist you to determine the appropriate level of care for your child. There are several levels of care available depending upon the severity of an eating disorder. These range from outpatient care to hospitalization. He or she will also make referrals for any other professionals that may be needed for your child’s treatment team.
Most treatment teams will consist of at least a therapist, a registered dietitian, and a medical doctor. There may also be a need for a family therapist and a psychiatrist. Some therapists may refer you and/or your child to a support group as well. Many geographic areas have support groups for family members that are also helpful for parents, spouses/partners, and siblings.
Final Thoughts on Social Media & Eating Disorders
If you or a loved one are dealing with an eating disorder, see your primary care physician and seek help from a licensed therapist. While eating disorders can be incredibly difficult to deal with, recovery is possible.