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Is There a Connection Between Social Media and Eating Disorders?

does social media cause eating disorders

It’s estimated that, by the age of 40, 20 percent of women and 14 percent of men will experience an eating disorder. However, experts report that there’s been a notable rise in eating disorders since the pandemic began, particularly among teenage girls. Eating disorders are characterized by unhealthy relationships with food and negative perceptions of one’s body image. 

Eating disorders typically emerge between the ages of 12 and 25. This is also around the time in which teens really begin to develop their identity, feel pressure to fit in with friends, prioritize social activities, and become more engaged on social media. In fact, the vast majority of teenagers today use social media to some capacity, with more than one-third admitting to using it “constantly.”

So, how are eating disorders and social media related? 

When you think about social media, what comes to mind? Platforms ranging from TikTok to YouTube, Instagram to Snapchat, all share a common thread: Newsfeeds flooded with images and videos of other people, featuring highlights from their lives. For teenage girls especially, social media often showcases influencers that are beautiful, fit, thin, and fashionable—which can lead to unrealistic beauty standards and practices in young girls. And teens are exposed to these images every day. 

Because of this, and a myriad of other reasons, analysts are investigating a causal relationship between social media and eating disorders. While research is still needed, it’s clear that the two are connected in many ways. We explore this more below.

Does Social Media Use Cause Eating Disorders?

As it stands, social media usage does not cause eating disorders—at least not directly. However, research shows that social media can increase one’s risk of developing disordered eating habits and a negative self-image. 

In a recent study cited by U.S. News, it was found that middle school students with social media accounts were more vulnerable to eating disorders than their less-connected peers. Additionally, those with accounts across multiple social media platforms were more likely to exhibit behaviors related to eating disorders than those with just a single account.

Another study, published in the National Library of Medicine, revealed that “social media provides a platform of perfectionism, often embeds unhealthy ideals of disordered eating and fitness and can hamper recovery from eating disorders.” 

Psychology Today cites research that reports these sentiments. In a 2016 survey, social media usage was connected to feelings of body dissatisfaction. The results were confirmed by a subsequent study in 2019, which found a “significant relationship” between social media and body image disturbance.

While research consistently finds a connection between social media and eating disorders, it is not as simple as cause-and-effect. Rather, social media is understood as a “plausible risk factor” for the development of eating disorders. Certain people are more susceptible to this risk than others. For example, teenagers – who are highly concerned about what others think, or how they appear to others – are more likely to be influenced into disordered eating habits. Additionally, social media users with existing eating disorders, body image issues, and high body mass index (BMI) are more likely to experience the negative influence of social media. Those who carry out certain behaviors on social media – such as photo manipulation, or searching for “thinspo” content – are also at greater risk for developing disordered eating habits and negative mental health outcomes.

As one study explains: “This shifts away from the fatalistic notion that social media causes poor body image and eating disorders in all users. Instead, it suggests that certain individuals are simply more vulnerable to its deleterious effect.”

Why are Eating Disorders and Social Media Linked?

As described above, the primary use of social media is to share highlights from one’s life with viewers. Often, however, this includes photos and videos of healthy eating, diet trends, fitness routines, and inspirational creators who are attractive, in shape, and/or skinny. Of course, this is not all negative! Fitness and nutritional content can be very helpful and inspirational for some social media users.

For others, however, it can be detrimental. Those who are already at risk of, or struggling with, body image and mental health issues might be triggered by this type of content. And social media algorithms work to feed users more of the content that they engage with. Someone might start their social media journey by saving healthy recipes or dieting ideas. Over time, they might be exposed to other related content like the use of weight loss pills, crash diets, fasting, and more. These are often facades for what’s really disordered eating.

On top of this, social media makes this type of content very accessible. Trends like #thinspiration, and #fitspiration seem innocent enough, but may be driving unhealthy perceptions and behaviors in young audiences, including disturbed eating and extreme exercise pathology. A recent New York Times article reveals that some hashtags related to eating disorders receive over 70 million views. Online communities and followings have formed within these topics. Platforms like TikTok are cracking down on harmful content, but it’s not all easy to detect—especially as teens get more creative with their use of hashtags.

By nature, social media is all about getting likes—a digital reassurance or validation from the outside world. Many people, especially young people, rely on getting likes or comments from their social media content. This can, over time, disrupt one’s mental health.

A national review summarizes this relationship perfectly, stating:

“In the 21st century, social media use amongst a developmentally susceptible age category is unprecedented and largely unregulated. ‘Likes’ and comments can validate identity, the societal ideal of beauty appears ubiquitous, and most people (albeit enhanced and filtered) appear to be perfect. In pursuit of acceptance, popularity and validation, the common option is to follow suit – to manage one’s own online identity to meet the ideal marked by others, to manipulate and scrutinise ‘selfies’, and once posted, angst over the numbers of likes or comments received. However, despite one’s best efforts, this online change is rarely good enough. Through the lens of social media, someone else can always look better, skinnier, or prettier.”

Facebook, who owns Instagram, is under scrutiny as their own research has revealed negative effects on teenage populations. Internal Facebook surveys, discussed in a new Wall Street Journal article, found that, among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of British users and six percent of American users traced the issue back to Instagram. Furthermore, 32 percent of teenage girls said that, whenever they felt about their bodies, “Instagram made them feel worse.”

Why are Teenagers So Vulnerable to Social Media Influence?

The answer to this question is twofold.

On one hand, teenagers are inherently social beings. Due to their stage of development, they care deeply about how others perceive them. They are in the midst of forming their sense-of-self and playing with their appearances, and looking for approval and acceptance from peers. Social media adds new layers to this, as teens can receive validation with a simple “like” online. 

When teenagers are exposed to the same content frequently, such as seemingly perfect influencers, they are more likely to feel pressure to look or act a certain way (as compared to adults). Over time, this can have a serious impact on their mental health.

As explained Simon Wilksch, author of one widely-recognized study in Australia, “Young adolescence is a time of both peer influences and appearance being very important, so it’s not hard to see how people this age could become very focused on how they are perceived online.”

In addition to this vulnerability, teenagers are also at greater risk of body image struggles. As revealed by the National Organization for Women, the majority of American girls (53 percent) are already “unhappy with their bodies” by the age of 13. By the time they reach age 17, however, more than 3 out of 4 (78 percent) of teenage girls feel unhappy with their bodies. 66 percent of girls express a desire to lose weight.

When these girls take to social media, then, they are more likely to get into a pattern of bad behaviors: obsessing over others’ content online, searching for “thinspiration” and other related topics, engaging in extreme eating or exercise habits, manipulating their photos, and changing their appearances to meet expectations in a digital world.

The problem is that most of the time, these behaviors go undetected. It’s estimated that 80 percent of eating disorders go without treatment. And in a world where social media is so prevalent, the desire to get skinny, exercise excessively, and change one’s body all appears “normal.”

But it’s not normal for teenagers to preoccupy themselves with these topics, and parents should be aware of their teens’ social media use. Parents should also know the signs of an eating disorder.

What Parents Can Do to Help Their Teenagers

The first thing parents can do to help their teens, and prevent disordered eating habits and attitudes, is to be present and aware of their social media activities. While this is not an all-encompassing solution (as there are several causes of eating disorders), it can help to mitigate any risks associated with social media use.

Of course, with teenagers, there is also a level of trust that is desired in the relationship. Parents might consider using parental content controls, establishing screen time limits, or setting basic ground rules in your home around social media use (e.g. what kind of social media use is allowed).

Further, parents should have ongoing conversations with their teenagers about social media use and their experiences online. For example, ask about how social media makes your teen feel emotionally. Ask how they use social media and how they think it is impacting their lives. During these conversations, you can also educate your teen about the pervasiveness of social media content and help them make more informed choices about the accounts or trends they follow.

On top of monitoring and discussing social media use, parents should encourage body positivity and appreciation at home. This can be an incredible protective factor against eating disorders. STAT News found that the “unconditional body acceptance of others”—directly stated or modeled—has been shown to boost a person’s own body appreciation. Experts encourage parents to avoid using any language that relates to someone’s physical attributes (positive or negative) and instead appreciate the body for all it’s able to do.

If you are concerned about your teen’s health and suspect an eating disorder, do not hesitate to seek help. Do not hesitate to reach out to a professional if you notice any of the symptoms of an eating disorder, or any mental health disorder, in your teen. 

Turnbridge is just one call away if and when you are ready. We are a nationally-recognized treatment center for teenagers and young adults struggling with mental health disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse. We are here for you. Call 877-581-1793 today.