Dominion Hospital - September 09, 2019

What you need to know now

Social media has permeated every aspect of life from the classroom to the home, work to sports, and even neighborhoods and places of worship. With such a wide range of social media platforms available to all age groups it’s become increasingly difficult to escape the pressures and influences of social media – particularly for teens. Understanding the three ways social media can play a role in eating disorders can help you or someone you love see the risks, balance the negatives, and get effective treatment.

First, it’s important to note that eating disorders are caused by biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Social media is an environmental factor. As teens increasingly spend more time on social media (often coupled with less time in face-to-face social interactions) its impact has grown. Adults fall into the same traps too. Online environments have a tendency to warp reality and make users lose a sense of what is normal.

For those already struggling with their relationship to food, or diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating or another eating disorder, self-image and eating consume daily thoughts and actions. Posts and blogs and pictures of those chronicling their looks, food choices, and exercise regimes coupled with an endless stream of body- and food-conscious content may cause additional stress and anxiety.

Researcher from the University of Pittsburgh looked at social media habits and found those who spent the most time engaged with or checking social media each day had more than twice the risk of developing eating disorders. How does social media influence eating disorders? In three very specific ways.

Dangerous comparisons

It’s natural to look at social media posts and pictures and consider how you measure up. When that comparison is made against celebrities, models, and famous influencers, as well as peers, many people feel inadequate. Often these images and posts are just an illusion – leaving people envious of things, relationships and lifestyles that don’t exist. Even the stream of news from acquaintances is scrubbed free of everyday struggles and drudge so only the highlights, awards, parties and relationship statuses make it online. Unhealthy comparison can lead to self-hate and feelings of being less or lacking.

Normalizing the abnormal

The world online offers a group or place for literally every interest, from fans of convertible cars in Alaska to how to grow cacti on oceanfront property. Unfortunately, that means there are also groups and sites that promote eating disorders by offering tips for dangerous behaviors or fueling unhealthy competition. While these kinds of social media sites and content do not directly cause eating disorders, they do normalize disordered eating and discourage recovery.

Along the same lines, images shared on social media with a prevalence of perfected poses, photoshopped bodies and fake filters make these images seem normal. That’s particularly damaging to those struggling with their self-image and eating disorders.

An outlet for shaming and bullying

Social media provides the ideal outlet for body shaming and cyberbullying. With no down time or breaks from the barrage, and often under the protection of anonymity, destructive and hateful comments can do extensive damage to someone already struggling or anxious. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “As many as 65 percent of people with eating disorders say bullying contributed to their condition.”

Flipping the scenario: How to use social media for empowerment

While there’s no substitute for professional treatment - Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists are equipped to help individuals establish self-soothing techniques, meal plans, and personalized coping mechanisms to treat an eating disorder – individuals can escape the negative effects of social media and use it as a tool for self-empowerment.

  1. Unplug: Engage in activities free from the digital world. Sign off from accounts, deactivate them, or take a break from social media. Giving yourself permission for a blackout can be very powerful.
  2. Unfollow: Unfollow individuals who obsess over posting their food, image, and exercise regimes – or anything that causes you to feel badly about yourself. Escape from unhealthy content or images by removing those accounts.
  3. Block: Put a stop to unfriendly social media users and body “shamers.” Stay away from anonymous sites or apps.
  4. Revamp: Use the digital world to celebrate friends and family. Only follow the accounts that are inspiring and motivational or encourage you to love and respect yourself.

Those recovering from eating disorders have found that appropriate online connections can be hugely helpful and valuable. Small groups of peers, especially online, provide a welcoming and non-judgmental environment to share feelings or concerns or connect with others similarly affected by eating disorders while national websites offer stories of hope and healing or links to resources.

Social media is a pervasive part of life but participating is voluntary. By understanding the sometimes-subtle ways it can play a role in eating disorders you can be more aware of the risks, make better decisions about the right kind of content for your health and even seek treatment or garner support.

The Reflections Eating Disorder Treatment Center, is the only Joint Commission-certified eating disorder treatment program on the East Coast, offering help and hope to adolescents and adults with eating disorders. For more information and personalized attention for your type of eating disorder please call (703) 538-2886 or visit Reflections to learn more.