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The impact of social media on eating disorders

Updated: Apr 19

young black teenage girl leaning on a table and looking at her mobile phone

The rise in popularity of social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok has undoubtedly increased awareness of eating disorders. Many people have built entire online communities to share support and advice for those going through difficult mental health conditions, like disordered eating.

At its best, social media helps to de-stigmatise eating disorders by encouraging people to be open about their personal struggles and embrace body positivity. On the other hand, it also opens up the doors to negative content which can, in many ways, be detrimental to the overall health and wellbeing of social media users.

In this article, we’re going to look at some of the ways social media can impact eating disorders - and what can be done to protect users. Get in touch with our team today.

Living through a lens - filters and edits

It’s important to remember that many social media users only share the highlights of their lives. So while it may seem to the consumer that a content creator’s life is perfect all of the time, what is often seen is only a small portion of reality - and even then it could be through a filter.

A 2021 study by the City University of London, ‘Changing the perfect picture’ found that 86% of participants said their social media representations didn't reflect their real life. They also said they felt pressure to project a ‘perfect life’.

Some of the most common filters used by participants altered skin tone, whitened teeth or took off weight. In addition, many also used social media filters to change their physical appearance by reshaping their nose, jaw and other facial features.

Filters can be fun to use from time to time but can also lead to a warped sense of self or body dysmorphia if users become overexposed to them.

According to research, young adults using social media filters frequently report feeling less satisfied with their actual face and body. They judge themselves by their own filtered ‘selfies’ in addition to the "perfect" representations of peers and celebrities.

This constant comparison to a filtered version of yourself or celebrities can negatively impact self-esteem and body image.

Celebrity culture and influencers

With the rise in the popularity of social media influencers and aspirational content, problematic behaviour on social media has also risen. Influencers are often a gateway to comparison, which can lead to more damaging thoughts and emotions.

There’s a long list of celebrities and influencers who have been ‘called out’ for using filters when selling beauty products or using editing apps or software such as FaceTune or PhotoShop to alter their appearance online.

The influencer community also receives regular accusations of promoting eating disorders on social media, particularly through ‘what I eat in a day’ or exercise and diet content.

Whilst not all influencers post content creating false expectations for what it means to be beautiful, for those avidly consuming such content it’s often a beauty ideal which can never be achieved. And, what may seem harmless to one person, could be unintentionally triggering those who are already experiencing, or susceptible to developing an eating disorder.

photo of social media influencer, Zara McDermott, woman with long hair standing against a dark blue background

In a recent BBC3 documentary, Zara McDermott: Disordered Eating, former Love Island contestant and social media influencer Zara, explored the impact social media influencer content (like her own), had on young people and their relationship with their bodies and diets.

Specialised eating disorder hospital, Schoen Clinic Newbridge opened its doors to Zara and the documentary makers allowing exclusive and rare access to some of their teenage patients to share their journeys.

Whilst social media content may not always be the cause of an eating disorder, the patients featured in the documentary noted that social media feeds such as Zara’s, filled with bikini pictures, ‘what I eat in a day’ videos and photoshoots trigger a desire to lose weight and disordered thoughts surrounding eating, dieting and exercise.

The documentary also took a closer look at TikTok and the speed at which the algorithm can take a user from relatively safe, healthy eating content to dangerous pro-eating disorder, or pro-ana content.

But is social media really to blame for the rise in young people experiencing eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia?

With an estimated 1.25 million people in Britain living with an eating disorder, TikTok has come under fire with many users stating that it’s fuelling the problem.

Research from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) analysed content shown on TikTik’s ‘For You Page’ and found that all users were shown eating disorder content and suicide content, sometimes very quickly. It also found that there is an entire community of eating disorder content on TikTok with more than 13 billion views, across just 56 hashtags.

Rachel Matthews, Director of Mental Health at Schoen Clinic UK Group says, “As eating disorder professionals, we know that social media doesn’t cause an eating disorder - but it can fuel the concerns and further entrench disordered beliefs.

We are pleased that there has been further research into this area and we support the campaigners working towards tighter controls around social media content. To be able to protect all young people from harmful material.”

photo of a woman eating a bowl of vegetables while scrolling through her phone

When does healthy living content become harmful material?

For some people, ‘clean eating’ and regular exercise are a way of life and having a healthy balance between the two in an “image-obsessed social media world” is deemed by some, as a way of measuring or demonstrating success.

Unfortunately, what often begins as a desire to live more healthily has the potential to develop into an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia, or other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) as hyper-restrictive diets masquerade as healthy ones.

So-called "fitspiration" accounts are also a common trigger for disordered eating, especially in those who are vulnerable. ‘Fitspiration’ accounts are often first seen as a simple way to stay motivated and get healthy, yet the more time spent looking at other people’s “perfect bodies” or “perfect lives”, the more likely it is that such comparison will develop into feelings of inadequacy and potentially something bigger like an eating disorder or depression. This is especially true if you already struggle with self-image or self-esteem issues.

As social media has transitioned from a communication tool to a way to document our lives, the concern about the negative impact this could have on self-esteem and body image has grown. A recent study by Stem4, a teen mental health charity, found that 77% of children and young people are unhappy with how they look, with the report acknowledging social media played a significant role in this figure.

We know that comparing yourself to others online can cause negative thoughts about your own appearance and may even lead to depression or anxiety, but it’s not always that simple to escape the cycle.

Over the years, platforms have tried to control how users view content, however, the efficacy of such algorithm changes is yet to be determined. Updates aimed to reduce users' exposure to thinspo content have backfired with users continuing to experience a lack of control over how much exposure they get to certain topics or hashtags online.

Social media and mental health

It is incredibly important to be aware of the possible effects of social media on your mental health so you can make informed decisions about how much time you spend on it and what types of content you see.

Research shows those who spend a large amount of time on social media are more likely than their peers to feel isolated from others in real life. This sense of loneliness created by social media may fuel an eating disorder or disordered eating.

Eating disorders thrive in isolation, with secrecy often playing a big role in a sufferer's daily routine.

If you struggle with an eating disorder—or know someone who does—it’s important to be aware of this connection between isolation and secrecy.

What you can do to help yourself

There are ways to consume social media content more healthily. It begins with increasing your awareness of the daily effects that comparison, body image and filters have on your emotions and wellbeing.

  • Audit your selfies - consider how much time you spend editing, filtering and posting, as well as how it makes you feel. How do you feel before, during, and after editing and posting? Do you continually look for feedback and compare your photographs to others? You should aim towards a future which values your self-worth and is tolerant of your own body image, as it is.

  • Embrace yourself as you are - keep in mind that our "flaws" are what make us unique. Appreciate yourself for all of your traits, not just the ones that can be seen in a selfie and try to practice self-compassion. You can develop genuine relationships with others in real life by developing a supportive and caring relationship with yourself.

  • Be kind to yourself – when you edit a selfie, you're telling yourself—consciously or unconsciously—that you're not good enough as you are. If the likes and comments you seek are related to an image that doesn't accurately reflect who you are, how fulfilling are they?

  • Try caring less about what others think of you - As Jennifer Coolidge (star of the hit Netflix show The White Lotus) recently said, “The secret to confidence is not caring.” Realistically though, your daily life does not have to be impacted by what others think of you on social media. How long you stay there is within your control.

According to research, interpersonal relationships in the real world make people happier than those they interact with online.

Overusing social media and comparing oneself to others can lead to problems with anxiety, depression and self-esteem, or they might exacerbate pre-existing mental health difficulties or fuel disordered eating.

At Schoen Clinic, we treat these issues by addressing their underlying cause whilst helping people develop positive coping mechanisms and lifestyle choices.

Please reach out to our caring team at Schoen Clinic if you need support for yourself or a loved one. Our specialists in London, Birmingham and York offer highly specialised treatments for children, teens and adults.

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