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The Link Between Social Media & Eating Disorders

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

Social media use has become more and more common over the past few years.  In 2015 it was estimated that 90% of adolescents between the ages of 18 and 29 were on social media.1 Social media is now considered to be the most widely-used method of information sharing, and many people are using various platforms to learn recipe ideas, get health tips, and stay motivated as they work towards fitness goals.2 Unfortunately, social media also provides many opportunities to spread misinformation under the guise of evidence-based recommendations, and promote unhealthy attitudes and behaviors.  While this can lead to a huge number of health consequences, some of the more insidious outcomes include negative body image and even the development of disordered eating.

Some studies have shown that people who spend more time on social media tend to experience more body dissatisfaction and body surveillance.3 This means that they are more likely to hold critical views of their bodies and weight statuses, and may be more likely to engage in body checking behaviors to sure they haven’t gained any weight.  Typical body checking behaviors include pinching parts of the body, looking in the mirror, or trying on the same piece of clothing to ensure the fit hasn’t changed.  People who use social media more often also tend to make more comparisons between their own and other peoples’ bodies (both on social media platforms and in person).  They are more likely to place a high value on thinness and be less satisfied with their own weight regardless of their health status.3 In one study of 960 female college students, researchers found that women were more likely to express concerns about their weight after using Facebook; women who spent the most time on the site were more likely to engage in body- and appearance comparison.4

The biggest predictor of negative body image and disordered eating behaviors appears to be “active” social media use, especially when this is centered on photos.  Studies suggest that people who spend more time viewing photos, posting status updates, and looking at “fitspiration” or “thinspiration” posts may be more likely to base their self-worth on their appearance.3,5 Specifically, people who spend more time posing for, selecting, editing, retouching, and sharing photos of themselves (selfies) were found to have lower body image and a stronger desire to lose weight.  It isn’t possible to say which factor here is the cause and which is the effect, since this particular study was not a randomized experiment.1 Unfortunately, most social media platforms are currently photo-based, meaning that navigating social media might be even more difficult for people predisposed to, struggling with, or recovering from disordered eating.

This doesn’t mean that these individuals should avoid social media altogether.  If you find that using social media triggers body dissatisfaction or other negative thoughts, consider the following strategies to make your social media feed more body positive:

  • Follow people or organizations that promote size diversity and body positivity.  Studies have shown that people who have a greater appreciation for the differences between peoples’ appearances are less likely to experience negative body image after using social medial.5 If you need some inspiration, check out this link for some body positive influencers.
  • Practice media literacy; learn to recognize credible sources of information in comparison with half-truths or misleading statements.  If a post seems confusing or false, Google the information or ask someone who knows more about the topic to learn whether it is accurate.
  • Try to post fewer selfies, or spend less time retouching photos before you post them if you think this is an area that challenges you.   Consider sharing posts about your interests, landscape photography, books, or music instead of photos of yourself.
  • Limit your overall social media use.  Instead of messaging someone through Facebook or Instagram, call them on the phone or connect in person.

If you are concerned about the impact of your social media use on your food choices and body image or are concerned about a friend or family member, seek out a Registered Dietitian and a therapist to help you work through these challenges.

References:

  1.  Cohen R, Newton-John T, Slater A. “Selfie”-objectification: The role of selfies in self-objectification and disordered eating in young women. Comput Hum Behav. 2018;79:68-74. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.10.027
  2.  Haber S. Dietitians on Social Media: Making Connections for Better Health. Food Nutr Mag. May 2017. https://foodandnutrition.org/blogs/the-feed/dietitians-social-media-making-connections-better-health/. Accessed June 4, 2018.
  3.  Holland G, Tiggemann M. A systematic review of the impact of the use of social networking sites on body image and disordered eating outcomes. Body Image. 2016;17:100-110. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.02.008
  4.  Hungry for “likes”: Anxiety over Facebook photos linked to eating disorders. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140304102438.htm. Accessed May 10, 2018.
  5.  Burnette CB, Kwitowski MA, Mazzeo SE. “I don’t need people to tell me I’m pretty on social media:” A qualitative study of social media and body image in early adolescent girls. Body Image. 2017;23:114-125.

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