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Social Media and Eating Disorders

Updated: Mar 3


Many people may be aware that it is currently Eating Disorder Awareness Week. During this time, people will come across numerous posts, blogs, statistics, personal accounts and support services and lack thereof. This often prompts individuals to pause, reflect, and ask questions about this topic.


One of the frequent questions I receive from parents is whether social media is a cause of eating disorders in children and teenagers. It's important to understand that eating disorders can stem from a complex interplay of factors, both biological and environmental. Genetic predisposition plays a role. Psychological factors such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, and negative body image can also contribute. Cultural influences, particularly in societies that emphasise thinness as an ideal, can create pressure to conform to unrealistic standards.


Traumatic life events, such as abuse or bullying, can trigger disordered eating patterns as a coping mechanism. While it is important to understand that merely being on social media is not the sole cause of an eating disorder, it does play a significant role. Social media platforms, intertwined with diet culture, often present content glamorising extreme weight loss, which can worsen existing vulnerabilities. Therefore, it is essential to recognise the impact of social media on exacerbating and prolonging eating disorders.


 

I am open about my experiences in my twenties, during which I spent a significant amount of time on pro-ana websites. These websites promote and glamorise behaviours associated with anorexia nervosa (commonly known as pro-anorexia or pro-ana sites). I became obsessed with these platforms, and they only fuelled my fixation on my body. They featured images of severely underweight individuals, idealising thigh gaps, visible hip bones, and prominent ribs. Additionally, there were detailed accounts of 'what I eat in a day' and tips on how to suppress hunger. Shockingly, this content is not confined to obscure corners of the internet but is readily available on mainstream social media platforms.


On social media, these messages often masquerade as innocent motivation or lifestyle tips. They might appear as inspirational quotes or harmless posts. Now that this content has infiltrated mainstream media, it poses an even greater danger. For unsuspecting individuals, like an innocent child stumbling upon these posts, it is difficult to discern the harmful nature of these messages. I struggle to find a word other than 'terrifying' to describe this situation.

 

As I reflected on the countless hours, I spent in my twenties scrolling through harmful, dark, and disturbing content in an internet café, it struck me how much information teenagers and children might be exposed to on social media, often with unrestricted access. This led me to experiment. I gave myself one hour on my phone to scroll through various social media platforms using hashtags like 'weight loss tips' and 'weight loss inspiration.' However, after just 30 minutes, I had to stop. The sheer volume of disturbing images I came across was overwhelming and frankly, quite disturbing.

 

Within just half an hour, the algorithm served me up exactly what it thought I wanted. I found myself staring at hundreds of images - bodies transformed, underweight frames, weights displayed on scales, and tips for suppressing hunger, some dangerously extreme. Scattered throughout these pictures were what was deemed as 'motivating quotes,' though they were anything but. No warning, nothing about triggering images, or any signal that what I was about to see was not just content but potential harm.


The average child now spends a significant amount of time on their phones every day, a good portion of which is on social media. A recent report by Gallup indicates that U.S teenagers spend somewhere between 4 to 6 hours per day on social media[1] If in just 30 minutes I came across all that damaging content, I can't help but feel a knot in my stomach thinking about the potential harm it could do when multiplied by the hours they spend daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.


As adults, we might question the content we come across and have the awareness to recognise when something is harmful. But can we expect the same discernment from a child? It's a scary reality. Many adults admit to finding social media challenging to handle. How then can we expect a child to navigate these difficult paths that even most adults find daunting?

Some might argue that we need to teach our children to be responsible with social media, but let's be honest - as an adult, I will admit to moments of total irresponsibility with it. There are times when I find myself scrolling at 2 a.m., spending far too long on it, getting caught up in other people’s lives, and sometimes struggling to distinguish between what is real and what is not.


The influence of social media on eating disorders cannot be overstated. While social media itself may not directly cause eating disorders, its undeniable contribution to the negative self-image of those already struggling is concerning. It is a dangerous territory filled with harmful information that can profoundly impact vulnerable people. When this damaging content is disguised up as 'motivation,' it becomes a covert weapon in the war people with eating disorders rage on their bodies. Reflecting on the dark corners of the web I once intentionally sought out for such harmful information, I am struck by how readily accessible these images are now. They are available at any hour, day, or night, without limits. In light of this reality, I am left questioning: how can social media not be recognised as a significant contributing factor to the prevalence of eating disorders?"

 

 


 

[1] Rothwell, J.(2023): Teens Spend Average of 4.8 Hours on Social Media Per Day, Gallup. Link: Teens Spend Average of 4.8 Hours on Social Media Per Day (gallup.com)


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