9% of the US population will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime, although statistics of subclinical rates of disordered eating are significantly higher. Next to opioid overdose, they are among the most lethal mental illnesses, responsible for one death every 52 minutes.
Eating disorders are complex conditions that impact people of all ages and demographics. Young people, in particular, are at a heightened risk for developing disordered symptoms.
But is social media to blame? Does it increase one’s susceptibility to problematic habits? And how can social media be used to aid recovery efforts? Let’s get into what you need to know.
Understanding the Impact of Social Media on Social Comparison
There’s always been a desire to “keep up with the Joneses,” and people have always measured themselves against their friends, family, or neighbors. Comparison, in many ways, is habitual and normal. We all want to belong, and we look to see what others are doing to validate our own actions.
But the extent of this comparison was vastly different twenty years ago than it is today. Social media, in particular, has dramatically changed how we interact with others. With just a tap on your phone, you can see what almost anyone is up to. You can scroll through their most recent vacation photos or watch a video of their baby taking his first steps. You can discover where someone works, shops, and spends their free time.
This nonstop “viewing” effect can be extremely problematic. Research shows excessive social media consumption coincides with low self-esteem, heightened anxiety, and depression. In many ways, we’re wired to experience FOMO, and when we see others living a life that looks better than ours, we naturally feel bad about ourselves.
The Effect of Unrealistic Bodies Developed By Editing Apps
It’s no secret that people often display their ‘highlight reel’ on social media. In other words, they post the best parts of their lives and avoid sharing the uglier or “realer” parts.
With that, it’s almost impossible to discern if someone has ‘edited’ their body on social media. To complicate matters, an overwhelming amount of people fix, enhance, or otherwise distort their image online. They don’t just change their bodies; they fix their noses, smooth out their blemishes, plump up their lips, widen their eyes, and whiten their teeth.
Even though most of us logically know the truth is different from fantasy, that knowledge doesn’t seem to shield people from feeling insecure about how they look. Someone who who dislikes their body might fundamentally feel like something is wrong with them. When they turn online, they might only see airbrushed perfection everywhere they look. With that, it can be increasingly disheartening to look in the mirror.
Young children, in particular, may be more vulnerable to these damaging effects. People of both sexes may grow up with entirely unrealistic standards about what bodies (especially adult bodies) should look like. They might feel inadequate if they feel like their own shape or size doesn’t look the same.
Poor body image is often a precursor for eating disorders. If someone feels anxious about how their body looks, they might decide to go on a diet to “lose a few pounds.” While not all diets are inherently synonymous with eating disorders, almost everyone with eating disorders reported their problems started when they began dieting.
Unfortunately, editing apps can create bodies and figures that just don’t naturally exist. People may assume that, if they just reach a specific goal weight, they will have that same body. When that doesn’t happen, they may feel compelled to keep losing weight.
Diving Into Toxic Diet Culture
Diet culture is an umbrella term for a media-focused emphasis on losing weight. Diet culture is nothing new- magazines, television shows, and movies have long reinforced the obsession with healthy eating and thinness.
But social media takes these messages to a heightened level. There’s such an abundance of information, and anyone on any platform can claim to be some health expert. Influencers- who often lack credentials or expertise- lecture about fitness or nutrition, and many of them build cult-like followings.
For example, someone might look at someone’s post titled “What I Eat in a Day” and roll their eyes or keep scrolling. But someone else might take the content at face-value and assume they need to follow that diet plan themselves.
Social media also perpetuates unrealistic standards with food, body image, and happiness. For example, there’s a well-known phenomenon of conventionally attractive, thin women posting many photos eating “non-diet” foods like donuts, pizza, or cookies. While there’s nothing wrong with this kind of routine indulgence, it often sends a mixed message to followers. Young people may admire these women and wonder why their bodies don’t look the same when they eat that way.
It’s important to note that toxic diet culture doesn’t just apply to women. In recent years, “bro-culture” has come to light with a heightened focus on bodybuilding, macronutrients, and lifting extremely heavy weights. Although it isn’t typically disclosed, many of these men are also using steroids and engaging in disordered behaviors like fasting, bingeing, or purging to maintain their physique.
All of these messages can be downright confusing to followers. People don’t know what to trust, and while some might be able to distinguish truth from exaggeration, social media often blurs these lines.
Understanding Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia Culture
Although most social media sites have taken efforts to censor pro-eating disorder content on their platforms, many people can and do share triggering information online. Pro-ana and pro-mia refer to content promoting dangerous behaviors, and many are rooted in the idea that eating disorders are proactive lifestyle choices.
Pro-ana and pro-mia content varies by type, but it may include:
- Thinspiration, bonespiration, fitspiration: images meant to inspire weight loss or body sculpting
- Crash dieting tips
- Morbid quotes about willpower, staying the course, or other symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Specific techniques/tutorials to engage in disordered behaviors
- Recommendations to lie or hide the eating disorder from family/professionals
- General hostility towards pro-recovery efforts
Unfortunately, this harmful content just isn’t that hard to find. A susceptible person may stumble upon it accidentally. But once they know what to look for, it can be easy to get sucked in.
These communities can create a toxic ‘peer support’ influence. People may feel like they will be ostrasized should they choose to pursue recovery.
Does Social Media Actually Cause Eating Disorders?
It’s far too simplistic to assume that one variable causes a mental illness. Eating disorders existed long before social media, and it’s likely they will persist even if social media loses its popularity at some point in the future.
Like all conditions, eating disorders are multifaceted with many risk factors, including:
- Having blood relatives with eating disorders
- Having comorbid mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, or substance use disorders
- History of dieting
- Tendencies towards control and perfectionism
- Childhood trauma
- Being bullied or criticized over weight
- Low self-esteem
It is unlikely that social media alone causes eating disorders. However, they may be a catalyst for someone who already has numerous risk factors. In addition, once someone begins dabbling with disordered eating, social media can certainly reinforce the problem.
It’s also possible that social media acts as a medium for “learning diet tips” or “learning insecurity about your body.” This can prime someone to engage in eating disorder behavior without truly knowing the full ramifications of what they’re doing.
Can Social Media Support Eating Disorder Recovery?
Although social media has its obvious downsides, some people have found that these online platforms offer an opposite effect: support and solution.
From Facebook to TikTok to Reddit, there are numerous “pro-recovery” circles and forums available to people seeking to improve their mental health. This content focuses on the benefits of recovery. Users often share their tips for getting better and call out disordered behavior when they notice it.
Likewise, the benefits of anonymous support can’t be overstated. Many people with eating disorders feel isolated in their struggles. Some cannot access appropriate treatment or fear the repercussions of telling a trusted adult about their situation. Having free online support can be invaluable.
In addition, many body positivity advocates have turned to social media to raise awareness for their platform. It’s not uncommon to see quotes or stories about how people are turning their backs against diet culture or disordered eating.
While turning online isn’t a viable substitute for seeking professional treatment, it can be a stepping stone for feeling better. Simple learning that you’re not alone- and receiving validation and kindness during tough times- can be a motivating factor in someone’s recovery.
What Should You Do If You’re Struggling With An Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders exist on a vast spectrum, and symptoms can vary in frequency and intensity. However, it’s often a misconception that people outgrow eating disorders- or that they just get better with time. In fact, the opposite is often true.
If you’re struggling, here are some considerations:
Tell someone: Even if it feels frightening or embarrassing, identify at least one person you can talk to about your situation. Ideally, this is someone you trust, and who you believe can support you during this time. Try to be as honest as possible. If talking face-to-face feels uncomfortable, consider sending them a text or calling them on the phone first.
Find a therapist with expertise in eating disorders: Eating disorders are serious, but good treatment can help you recover. It’s important to work with a therapist with specialized training in eating disorders. They can help you learn more about triggers and teach you new ways to cope with stress.
Consider meeting with a dietitian: Dietitians can be useful in eating disorder recovery, as they can help facilitate building a healthier relationship with food. Your dietitian can work with you to develop a meal plan that honors your health.
Practice healthy stress management: It’s important to try to eliminate excess stress as much as possible. Identify healthy coping skills you can use when you do get overwhelmed and get in the habit of using them regularly.
Avoid triggering content: As much as possible, try to eliminate viewing harmful content that reinforces disordered eating. This may include blocking or unfollowing certain people or setting better limits around your social media habits. Consider following more recovery-oriented influencers/pages if you feel they positively support your well-being.
Focus on building your self-esteem: The more you love yourself, the less likely you are to abuse food or harm your body. Although building self-esteem takes time, the work is done in moment-by-moment actions. You always have the choice to affirm yourself and practice more self-compassion.
Focus on the big picture: Eating disorder recovery is often a messy process, and it’s normal to experience setbacks along the way. Lapses do not inherently indicate failure, and you will ideally learn many lessons about yourself along the way. Try to be patient with your progress and talk to your treatment team if you have concerns.
The relationship between social media and eating disorders is undoubtedly complex. If you suspect that you or a loved one is struggling with food or body image, it’s important to seek support. These conditions can often worsen progressively without intervention. The road to recovery can be challenging, but it is possible to overcome an eating disorder.