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, send a tweet, 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 for 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.

Who is on social media?

You may not even realize the impact social media has on our society, the numbers according to Pew Research Center, shows that social media is more influential than we realize:

  • 69% of US adults use Facebook
  • 73% of US adults use YouTube
  • 75% of 18-24 year olds use Instagram
  • 73% of of 18-24 year olds use Snapchat

While we see that majority of American’s use social media, what is even more surprising is how often.

  • 74% of US adults use Facebook daily, with 51% visiting several times a day
  • Roughly 77% of Snapchat users and Instagram users ages 18-24 use the apps several times a da

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.

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 205-409-4220 or complete our contact form.


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