Social media linked to the rise in eating disorders

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Award-winning actor Zendaya celebrates all body types. Supermodel Bella Hadid opens up about how she’s dealt with anorexia and warns her Instagram followers that ‘social media isn’t real’.

Despite their efforts to serve as role models, photos and videos of celebrities on social media can trigger people with negative body images, especially those with eating disorders.

This content—and social media itself—does not cause eating disorders.

“Social media can be an empowering tool for connecting and building communities,” says Lauren Smolar, vice president of mission and education at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

But, says Smolar, “It can also be the complete opposite, reinforcing unhealthy messages about diet and appearance.”

Nearly 29 million people in the US will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, NEDA estimates. Most of these people – 95% – are between the ages of 12 and 25, an age group for which social media is an important part of everyday life.

The problem has grown with the increased use of social media since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Smolar, calls, texts and chats to the NEDA helpline increased by 58% from March 2020 to October 2021.

Eating disorders are serious medical conditions that can be life-threatening and are associated with them Suicide Risk. People of all sizes, ages, races and ethnic groups, and genders can have eating disorders. These conditions can be treated. If you or someone you know is dealing with a harmful relationship with food or body image, Get help. You can start with your doctor or a therapist. Or call NEDA’s Helpline at 800-931-2237 or text.

“Shame and Guilt”

Research links social media use to eating disorders, including:

  • anorexia: Malnutrition and often an obsession with being thin. This condition can cause serious health problems and can be fatal.
  • bulimia: eating large amounts of food in a short period of time and then trying to counter it with unhealthy ways such as voiding, diuretics, laxatives, and excessive fasting or exercise
  • binge eating disorder: Binge eating without voiding or other attempts to compensate for repeated eating of large amounts of food.

The link between social media use and binge eating is revealed in a 2022 study review: “The more participants using social media, the more likely they are to have an increased appetite or intention to eat, which is what binge eating,” says University of Texas at Austin’s School of Nursing researcher Bo Ra Kim.

Other unhealthy behaviors include compulsive exercise and so-called cheat meals. “Although cheat meals can be packaged as a reward for me for hard training and dieting, in many cases losing control during this time can have negative health consequences,” says Kim.

Research also shows that seeing idealized (and unrealistic) Instagram images can negatively impact how young women feel about their bodies. Efforts to encourage body positivity and identify unrealistic content can help counteract this.

Unhealthy comparisons

Some people will do anything to look like people they think are perfect, whether it’s a realistic or healthy goal.

“There’s a lot of hero worship,” says Nancy Mramor Kajuth, PhD, a Pittsburgh-based psychologist and author of Get Reel: Produce your own life. “It creates a false reality to think you have to look like that. You identify so strongly with someone on social media that you stop breaking away from the fact that they’re just people getting paid to look good. That is their job.”

People also overlook the fact that real-life celebrities don’t even look like their visual images without makeup, styling, and photo editing, says Kajuth. The notion of what is “perfect” or “looks good” is also subjective and varies between different groups. Still, it can be harder to resist the images on social media if you’re prone to an eating disorder or body image issues.

Kajuth emphasizes that these influences are not new. Before social media came the unhealthy gaze of magazines, TV, movies, and billboards. But social media can bombard you with images and messages that, thanks to algorithms and shared posts, can multiply and follow you. The comparisons can be continued at will.

Growing use of social media

Facebook and Instagram, both owned by Meta, are making it easier for people to change their settings to not see certain ads or content. For example, they can set their preferences so that they are automatically taken to self-help content when they type certain words on Instagram, e.g. e.g. “thin”. TikTok has a page dedicated to eating disorder awareness.

However, the Social Media Victims Law Center says tech companies haven’t done enough to protect users. The center has filed 14 eating disorder cases against social media companies.

NEDA has asked Congress to allocate at least $1 million to the National Institute of Mental Health to study the impact of social media on teens and children. NEDA has also urged lawmakers to urge tech companies to publicize their social media research, hold them more accountable and prevent them from targeting young people with ads and content.

“We continue to urge social media companies to review their policies and continue to improve to make their sites safer for users,” says Smolar.

A social media checkup and other ways to help

Experts and researchers encourage healthcare providers to assess their patients’ social media activities. They also offer these tips for individuals and families to reduce the impact of social media on mental health:

  • Get help if you think you may have one eating disorder or body image issues, or if your use of social media affects the way you feel about yourself. Consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), says Kim. “Mindfulness programs are highly recommended treatments.”
  • Take stock of the messages and images you see and how they make you feel, says Smolar. Make sure the content is healthy for you.
  • Don’t bother with numbers related to measuring food or weight. This includes social media posts that include specific weights or body part measurements, body mass index (BMI) values, and calorie counts.
  • Spend more personal time with family and friends who are positive, supportive, and healthy for you.
  • If you’re a parent of a teenager, pay attention to the spaces they hang out in — not just in real life, but on social media as well.
  • Take a break from social media. “It loses some of its power if you don’t stick to it,” says Kajuth.

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