The Dark Side of Social Media: Understanding the Link Between Social Media and Eating Disorders

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There is no single cause of eating disorders, and there are many possible contributing factors, such as genetics, history of trauma

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There is no single cause of eating disorders, and there are many possible contributing factors, such as genetics, history of trauma or abuse, and the presence of other mental health disorders. So, what exactly is the link between social media and eating disorders? While social media platforms may not directly cause an eating disorder, they prove to be a risk factor and trigger for developing one.

Risks Associated with Social Media Use and Eating Disorders

Social media platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram saturate the daily lives of people of all ages. There’s no doubt they’re fun and give people ways to connect and communicate with their intimate circle and with people all over the world, but they have a dark side. 

Social media use can lead to a host of negative psychological consequences, such as depression, loneliness, low self-esteem, and poor body image, contributing to eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. The other risks of social media use, as they relate to eating disorders, include the following.

  • Poor body image: Constant comparison to societal beauty standards and ideals leaves people dissatisfied with their appearance. A Facebook study revealed that 40% of Instagram users felt unhappy with their body image after using the platform.
  • Perfectionism: Many social media users don’t post without using filters or editing their images in some way. Normalizing an unrealistic, perfect appearance that most people can’t meet is detrimental to self-esteem. It also creates a disconnect between one’s authentic self and social media image.
  • Exposure to pro-eating disorder content: This content glorifies eating disorders and exposes at-risk individuals to ways of engaging in disordered eating behaviors, such as purging, laxative use, and excessive exercise.
  • Platform algorithms: Based on the content users are searching for, platform algorithms will add similar content to the feed, increasing exposure to potentially triggering images.
  • Negative comments: Social media users tend to rely on comments and likes for validation. Negative comments can seriously harm self-esteem and body image (1).

It’s important to note that, in addition to triggering the start of an eating disorder, social media use also harms those already receiving treatment for their eating disorder. Repeated exposure to triggering content highlighting dieting, thinness, and unrealistic appearances can truly threaten one’s progress in their recovery.

How Can You Prevent Your Child from Developing Unhealthy Relationships with Food Due to Social Media Use?

The prevalence of children using social media is high. Reports show that 42% of children under the minimum required age of 13 have a social media account, and the platforms don’t do much to enforce age restrictions (1). Generally, it’s up to parents and guardians to monitor their children’s usage and foster a healthy use of social media. The following are a few ways to protect your child from the negative impact of social media:

  • Limit time spent on social media and actively monitor your child’s feed.
  • Encourage them to follow accounts focusing on body positivity and other positive content.
  • Ensure they unfollow accounts that could harm their self-esteem and body image.
  • Avoid negative talk about body image and negative self-talk at home (2).
  • Communicate openly with your child about the dangers of social media use and eating disorders, and let them know they can come to you with their questions and concerns.

Resources Available for People Dealing with Eating Disorders Related to Social Media Use

It is crucial to tap into available resources to find the support you need when suffering from an eating disorder. Some of the non-profit organizations dedicated to eating disorder awareness and education include the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment for Eating Disorders (FEAST), and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).

Seeking out support groups and online forums is also a great way to find advice and encouragement from others going through similar experiences to yours. Chances are, members of these groups are also on social media and will be able to relate to your struggles with the influence of social media on your well-being.

If you or your loved one is showing signs of an eating disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. At Selah House, our team of experts can offer highly effective eating disorder therapies to meet your unique needs in a warm and welcoming environment. Call the team at 866-324-8081 or use our contact form to get started.

References

  1. Dane, A, & Bhatia, K. (2023). The social media diet: A scoping review to investigate the association between social media, body image and eating disorders amongst young people. PLOS Global Public Health, 3(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgph.0001091
  2. King University Online. (2019, October 9). The link between social media and body image. https://online.king.edu/news/social-media-and-body-image/

Author bio:

Kate Delaney Chen, BSN, RN-BC is a healthcare writer and registered nurse with over 17 years of bedside experience. She specializes in Psychiatric Nursing and Nephrology and currently works at a nationally recognized Inpatient Eating Disorders Program.

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