Disordered Eating Is Everywhere On Social Media. It’s Hurting Kids
We know social media is bad for our brains — it can increase anxiety, stress, depression, loneliness, and body image issues, particularly in young people. But as if that weren’t enough, a new review study finds that its influence is so strong that social media use is even a risk factor for young people developing eating disorders.
Approximately 30 million Americans struggle with eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Organization, and scientists have long suspected that social media use is contributing to that large number.
To explore the connection between social media use and eating disorders, researchers from the University College London pored over 50 studies published between January 2016 and July 2021, from 17 different countries, about trends in how 10- to 24-year-olds’ body image and eating patterns are affected by social media.
Their analysis suggests that social media sets teens up to compare themselves and their looks to others. Appearance-focused platforms — like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube — have the power to quickly instill trends of self-objectification and set beauty standards like being thin and fit.
“The outcome is a population of young people at risk of corroded body image, gaping discrepancies between their actual and ‘polished’ online selves, and an increased likelihood of engaging in compensatory disordered eating behaviors, as our review has shown,” Alexandra Dane, a student researcher on the study, said in a press release.
These platforms sometimes go so far as to actively promote pro-eating disorder content, by pushing trends such as ‘fitspiration’ and ‘thinspiration’. Three of the studies included in the review noted that exposure to ‘fitspiration’ videos results in negative mood and body image dissatisfaction. Although some participants felt inspired to eat healthy and exercise, others felt “extreme pressure” to do so, which was followed by disordered eating. Videos hashtagged ‘thinspiration’ promoted “starvation as a lifestyle choice,” according to the paper, with some even sharing tips on how to hide eating disorders.
These are just some of the social media trends revolving around dieting. “For example, ‘What I eat in a day’ videos on TikTok don’t necessarily promote a realistic expectation of a ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ day’s eating,” says Allison Chase, Ph.D., regional clinical director at the Eating Recovery Center in the Texas region, who was not involved in the new study. And “weight loss ads and diet product testimonials, with their “before” and “after” photos, can lead to unrealistic and unhealthy body image issues and expectations.”