A Deeper Look At Social Media and Eating Disorders

October 03, 2023

Social media platforms have a wide range of connections to our mental health. At the most simplistic level, apps like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok have a major impact on human behavior. In many ways, it’s in our nature as a social species to yearn for any type of interaction, and the networks formed on social media apps become part of our real-life communities. But these online platforms affect how we see our own lives, especially our own bodies.  

The use of social media has been connected with the prevalence of a range of mental illnesses, including eating disorders. This article aims to delve into that connection. We will uncover the factors that contribute to the development of these disorders and explore how social media can either perpetuate or mitigate these risks. From the pressures of the ‘thin ideal’ to the potential for positive community support, we will explore the relationship between these online platforms and body image. 

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are a category of mental illnesses that impact individuals’ relationships with food, exercise, and other eating behaviors. These conditions often stem from a distorted perception of their body image, weight, or body shape. Their consequences can be severe, encompassing not only psychological distress but also severe physical health issues, such as nutritional deficiencies, muscular skeletal weakness, hormonal issues, cardiovascular complications, and, in extreme cases, even fatalities. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes five main types of eating disorder diagnoses, including:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Characterized by severe food restriction driven by an intense fear of weight gain, anorexia nervosa can lead to dangerous weight loss and malnutrition.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Individuals with bulimia nervosa cycle between consuming large quantities of food (binge-eating) and then engaging in purging behaviors, such as vomiting, using laxatives, or excessive exercise, in an attempt to rid the body of calories.
  • Binge Eating Disorder: Those with binge eating disorder experience episodes of eating, often accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame, and a lack of control.
  • Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder: This category includes eating disorders that do not fit the criteria for the other recognized types but still significantly impact an individual’s relationship with food, including atypical anorexia nervosa and atypical bulimia nervosa.
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): ARFID is characterized by highly selective eating, avoiding certain foods, textures, or smells, leading to nutritional deficiencies and impairing an individual’s quality of life.

It’s important to note that eating disorders can display a wide range of signs, symptoms, and behaviors. They are complex conditions that require professional diagnosis and treatment to address both their physical and psychological aspects effectively. To learn more about EDs, refer to our information page and blog.

The Role of Social Media

The media has long influenced people’s self-perception and self-esteem, however, social media intensifies this experience. Through TV and magazines, the traditional media has conveyed societal body norms by uplifting celebrities, actors, and models. In doing so, the media has created a cultural backdrop against which individuals compare themselves, sometimes leading to body dissatisfaction and contributing to the development of eating disorders.

Social media, however, ups the ante both quantitatively and qualitatively. In 2022, over 4.59 billion people were active on social media platforms. With smartphones, people have access to their social accounts constantly, and this technology engagement tends to hit young people the hardest. The rates of social media usage are also astronomical. Over half of U.S. teens spend more than four hours a day on social media.

In addition to being more accessible, social media platforms have become powerful agents in framing beauty standards. Users are constantly bombarded with curated images that evangelize the “thin ideal.” The blurring of lines between the personal and public sphere on social media platforms often leads to an intimate exposure to these standards, making them even more impactful.

It’s difficult to escape this impact as social media apps are designed to be addictive. Features like infinite scroll, push notifications, and algorithms that bring you targeted content to trigger a dopamine release that keeps you coming back. 

Furthermore, how people engage with social media plays a significant role in its impact on body image and eating disorders. It’s hard to use the apps without comparing your body, lifestyle, and achievements with those of others, often idealized or filtered. The pressure to present a curated, ‘picture-perfect’ image can lead to feelings of inadequacy and a distorted sense of self.

The Connection Between Social Media Use and Eating Disorders 

The pressure that social media puts on our self-image drives the connection between online platforms and eating disorders. However, the connection between the two isn’t always negative. 

Social media is a tricky beast. On one hand, it’s an incredible tool to stay connected with loved ones, expand our communities, and learn from reputable sources in a casual and accessible way. However, it has a clear dark side. Most popular social platforms are centralized around photos and videos. When these feeds are populated with content that perpetuates the thin ideal, this can cause feelings of body dissatisfaction and increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.

Next, we’ll go into more detail about the connection between these online platforms and eating disorders. While there’s plenty to say about the risk factors, we’ll also highlight some of the positive ways that social media can have a good influence on mental health, body image concerns, and eating disorder recovery.

three individuals sitting on couch pointing to laptop screen

Triggers and Risk Factors

This isn’t a new story, but it’s an important one. Continued research shows that social media exposure increases the likelihood of young adults developing an eating disorder. 

In today’s culture, we are confronted with the idolization of certain physical attributes, many of which are deeply rooted in systemic oppression. These ideals often emphasize thinness, youth, whiteness, and other characteristics, creating a direct assault on an individual’s self-worth. Social media platforms can act as powerful amplifiers of these systemic patterns. And because it’s primarily a visual medium, the brunt of the attack falls on the user’s self-image. Some aspects of social media that contribute to its connection with eating disorders include the highlight reel effect, harmful content, photo-editing, and targeted advertisements. Next, we’ll go over each of these factors and share some findings from relevant research.

The Highlight Reel Effect

Many popular social platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, revolve around sharing photos and videos. These glimpses into social media users’ lives create the highlight reel effect, giving viewers a distorted view of reality. In 2021, Facebook leaked their internal research that stated that over 40% of young girls have seen something on Facebook or Instagram that made them feel unattractive or insecure. The selective portrayal of posed photos can leave individuals feeling left out, inferior, or insufficient, laying the groundwork for attacks on self-worth.

The Content: From Cyberbullies to Pro-ED Accounts

The content and communities found in the social sphere can be as hurtful as they can be helpful. Issues like cyberbullying, the existence of online communities that glorify eating disorders, and the presence of pro-eating disorder content can be harmful to people with eating disorders or disordered eating habits. Moreover, the role of “fitspiration” and “thinspiration” content on social media glorify extreme thinness and promote unhealthy behaviors. All of these factors create environments that can foster unhealthy behaviors and reinforce body image issues.

What’s Even Real? Photo Editing and Filters

Even if you aren’t exposed to content that directly supports weight loss and the “thin ideal,” the prevalence of photo editing and filters has a detrimental effect. These tools allow users to modify their appearance in selfies, often leading to unrealistic beauty standards. Individuals may struggle with distinguishing between digitally enhanced representations and reality, further fueling dissatisfaction with their own bodies.

Targeted Ads

Finally, targeted advertising on social media plays a crucial role in reinforcing negative body image. Advertisements often promote products or services that promise to help individuals achieve the “ideal” body, leading to a never-ending cycle of unattainable beauty standards.

A Long-Standing Correlation

Just delving into the research in this domain is sobering. Over the years, there have been so many journal articles that highlight the same core message: “Due to the media/social media, there has been an increased prevalence of eating disorders among our youth.” 

For example, a study from 2021 found a strong association between comparing one’s physical appearance to those of people they follow on social media and both body dissatisfaction and a drive for thinness. Their findings don’t seem too dissimilar from a 2003 review on the impact of the media on eating disorder development or this 1996 piece on the same topic. 

A 2023 review in PLOS Global Public Health really puts it into perspective by analyzing the findings from 50 studies on the connection. It highlights the escalating numbers of eating disorder cases alongside social media use, emphasizing the dangers of pro-ED content and “fitspiration.”  

This recurring theme underscores the long-standing awareness of the risks posed by social media exposure. It is like the climate change of mental health, where the trends and dangers have been recognized for decades, yet the solution (or willingness of corporate entities to support a solution) remains elusive.

Positive Aspects and Solutions

While the concerns surrounding the relationship between social media and eating disorders are significant, it’s not all bad news. In so many positive ways, social media platforms can provide education, awareness, and community. In this section, we’ll explore the potential benefits of these digital platforms.

Promoting Body Positivity and Self-Acceptance

Counteracting the unrealistic beauty standards perpetuated on social media, many users and influencers are championing the cause of body positivity and self-acceptance. They use their platforms to celebrate diverse body types, challenge harmful beauty norms, and promote self-love. 

Mitigating Negative Impacts with Social Media Literacy

Strategies like social media literacy can help mitigate the negative impact of social media on individuals with eating disorders. These include limiting exposure to harmful content, unfollowing accounts that trigger negative emotions, and curating one’s social media feed to include positive and supportive content. Incorporating programs to support social media literacy for children and adolescents has had beneficial outcomes. They teach youth about everything from persuasive marketing techniques to cultural constructs about beauty and health. Additionally, seeking professional help and engaging in offline support networks are crucial steps in mitigating the harmful effects of social media on mental health. 

Valuable Content from the Alliance

The Alliance for National Eating Disorders provides valuable educational content on platforms like Instagram and TikTok. These resources offer a wealth of information, support, and guidance for individuals seeking help or looking to raise awareness about eating disorders. The Alliance’s social media presence is a testament to the positive role these platforms can play in providing crucial information and support. 

By implementing strategies to mitigate negative impacts and harnessing the power of online communities, social media can become a force for positive change and support in eating disorder recovery and prevention.

Use Social Media with Purpose: Connect with The Alliance 

The influence of social media platforms has the power to shape individuals’ perceptions of their bodies and amplify the pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards. While the impact of these platforms on eating disorders is undeniable, it’s important to recognize that social media is not inherently harmful. It can also serve as a source of support, awareness, and empowerment for those on their journey to recovery.

The key to mitigating the negative impact of social media on eating disorders lies in promoting media literacy, cultivating supportive online communities, and seeking professional guidance.

For help accessing all these supports, reach out to The Alliance. Check out our social pages and call our helpline to learn about treatments, connect with therapists, and start unraveling the systems that are detrimental to our body image.

Seek Help

If you or a loved one is experiencing an eating disorder, you are not alone. Recovery is always possible and help is available with the National Alliance for Eating Disorders.