Social Media’s Impact on Eating Disorders

A girl holds her phone to take a selfie by the ocean and is likely not thinking about the link between social media and eating disorders

Social media is one of the greatest communication tools and has changed the way we engage with one another. The social media platform allows us to connect and communicate with anyone, anywhere – whether we post a picture, share a tiktok, or update our status. Our lives can be on full display as little or as much as we choose. It also has the power to wreak havoc on someone suffering from an eating disorder and be even more detrimental to those in recovery. While social media alone is typically not the sole cause of developing an eating disorder, it can play a significant role for those susceptible to eating-disordered behaviors, anxiety, and depression.

What is the connection between social media and eating disorders?

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, a recent study of women between the ages of 18 and 25 showed a link between Instagram and increased self-objectification and body image concerns, especially among those who frequently viewed fitspiration images. Americans spend around two hours a day on social media potentially exposed to unrealistic ideals of beauty, diet talk, body shaming, thinspiration, weight loss posts, and more. Another study of social media users showed that higher Instagram usage was associated with a greater prevalence of orthorexia nervosa symptoms, highlighting the influence social media has on psychological well being.

Social media is used to share everything, and it has become a significant tool for influencing others and placing value on the perfect body and appearance in several key ways.

  • Body Objectification:  Pictures on social media, many of which are altered, play a role in how one seeks validation, often finding our worth by how many “likes” and comments we receive. I have worked with individuals that have used this to decide if they were going to eat that day or not. Selfies on social media can potentially send a message that our beauty determines our worth and our body, a message of which many with an eating disorder struggle.
  • Comparison:  The nature of social media lends itself toward comparison, as we often judge ourselves against others highlight reels of success and happiness. For someone in the depths of an eating disorder, this can be toxic as they compare their body image to those seen on social media. As I stated earlier, these images are often altered and paint an unrealistic picture of how we think we should look.
  • Triggers:  For those in recovery, social media offers triggers to engage in eating disordered behaviors. From personal experience and from women I have treated, I have seen these triggers often come from posts about weight loss, workout routines, dieting, and the images of unrealistic ideals of body sizes. For example, there are many posts of before and after weight loss photos that may trigger the urge to lose weight by any means necessary.

Be mindful and aware of the nature of social media, and view perfect, yet edited images, for what they are. Also, be aware that content you see might be a facade and those posting might be concealing their issues behind smoke and mirrors. Value yourself as you are, and protect yourself from the negativity of social media.

Here are a few tips to minimize your risk of social media leading to an eating disorder:

  • Be mindful of whom you follow. It can be motivating to follow food and fitness blogs and pages, but make sure you follow the right ones. Follow ones that promote positive information that makes you feel good about who you are.
  • Don’t be afraid to unfollow. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed because you can’t live up to the expectations of others on social media, unfollow those people or pages. Don’t be afraid to unfollow those that aren’t good for your physical or mental health.


Using Social Media Positively

Social media can be detrimental, but it also gives us a place to be a voice of change and to advocate. We can transform social media from a triggering, toxic space to that of encouragement, learning, and support. Online campaigns and backlashes against sexism and body shaming are becoming more common. Social media can promote a sense of community to those suffering from an eating disorder by simply posting an inspirational message related to body image, a recovery-oriented blog, or an article related to eating disorder education.

Things are changing and we are beginning to see people take the step to help change the conversations on social media. One hashtag that is making the rounds is #NEDAselfie. Individuals are posting unfiltered selfies with a caption about what makes them feel confident in their own skin. Another hashtag that is redefining how women see themselves and their bodies is #WomenEatingFood. This brainchild of a registered dietitian and a body coach came about to help start the conversation around women eating real food without it being labeled as “good” food or “bad food”. Women can eat all sorts of food without criticism or remarks about their bodies.

When it comes to social media it is important to be careful about what we read and see and allow our mind to take in. It is easy to say “feel good about your body,” but for many it’s not so easy to do when social media paints an unrealistic picture.  It is important to remember that regardless what a post may be telling you, you are worthy and take the time to appreciate all that you are.

How Do I Support a Loved One with an Eating Disorder?

If you suspect that a friend or family member is struggling with an eating disorder exacerbated by social media, it’s crucial to approach the situation with empathy, understanding, and a willingness to provide support. Here are some steps you can take to help a loved one navigate the challenges associated with social media and eating disorders:

1. Educate Yourself:

Begin by educating yourself about eating disorders, their signs, and the impact of social media on individuals with these challenges. This knowledge will enable you to approach the situation with empathy and understanding.

2. Open a Non-Judgmental Dialogue:

Initiate an open and non-judgmental conversation with your loved one. Express your concerns and observations without placing blame. Use “I” statements to communicate your feelings, such as “I’ve noticed that you seem to be struggling, and I’m here to support you.”

3. Listen Actively:

Allow your loved one to share their feelings and experiences. Listening actively without interrupting or imposing your opinions creates a safe space for them to open up about their struggles.

4. Encourage Professional Help:

Suggest seeking professional help, such as therapy or counseling. Eating disorder treatment facilities, like Magnolia Creek, provide specialized care and support. Offer to help research treatment options or accompany them to appointments.

5. Limit Exposure to Triggers:

Collaborate with your loved one to identify and minimize triggers on social media. Encourage them to unfollow accounts that promote unrealistic beauty standards or trigger negative thoughts. Help curate a more positive online environment.

6. Promote Positive Body Image:

Reinforce the importance of self-acceptance and positive body image. Share content on social media that promotes body positivity, self-love, and acceptance. Participate in campaigns or movements that challenge harmful beauty ideals.

7. Be Patient and Understanding:

Recovery is a gradual process, and setbacks may occur. Be patient, understanding, and supportive throughout the journey. Celebrate small victories and let them know you are there for them, no matter what.

8. Involve Other Support Systems:

Encourage your loved one to involve other support systems, such as friends, family, or support groups. Creating a network of individuals who understand and empathize with their struggles can enhance the recovery process.

9. Stay Connected:

Maintain regular communication and check in on your loved one regularly. Let them know that they are not alone and that your support is unwavering. A strong support system can significantly contribute to the healing process.

10. Seek Professional Guidance for Yourself:

Supporting someone with an eating disorder can be challenging. Consider seeking guidance from professionals or support groups to help you navigate this journey and understand how best to provide support.

Remember, supporting a loved one with an eating disorder is a collaborative effort. By offering understanding, encouragement, and guidance, you can play a vital role in their journey towards recovery. If you need additional assistance or resources, don’t hesitate to reach out to professionals in the field.

Magnolia Creek Renews your Health

At Magnolia Creek, our holistic approach to treating eating disorders emphasizes self-acceptance, validation, and personal empowerment. Designed to support clients as they explore the contributing factors associated with their eating disorder, our healing environment helps clients challenge their thoughts and behaviors that prevent them from accepting themselves and living fully and freely.

Remember, you are never alone, and we are here to help you if you are struggling with eating disordered behaviors. Magnolia Creek’s comprehensive care plan for treating eating disorders and co-occurring mental health disorders restores health, and our collaborative treatment environment is essential to recovery. Using an evidence-based treatment model, we work with you to help you fully recover. To learn more about our treatment program, please call us at 205-235-6989 or complete our contact form.

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