Social Media and its Effect on Eating Disorders

05/10/2017 12:55 pm ET

Social media has effectively made its way into every classroom, dinner table, and workplace. Whether it is used by children, teenagers, or adults, everyone seems to have a huge presence in the social media world. With a wide range of social media platforms used among all age groups including Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, it can be increasingly difficult to escape the pressures and influences of social media.

Social media may have a strong influence on a person’s relationship with food and fear of gaining weight. Many individuals in the social media world are chronicling their fit bodies, food choices, and exercise regimes. For individuals struggling with an eating disorder, the constant streams of body and food conscious posts may cause heightened levels of stress and anxiety surrounding the ‘perfect body image’.

Understanding how social media can play a huge role in the development and influence of eating disorders can help you or someone you love seek effective treatment.

Causes of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are caused by a multitude of factors that influence someone to engage in destructive eating habits. These factors include biological, psychological, and environmental components that increase a person’s likelihood that they will be diagnosed with an eating disorder.

For people suffering with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, obsessions over self-image and feelings of shame over eating food consume a person’s daily thoughts and actions. Individuals become consumed in counting calories, purging after a binge eating episode, excessively exercising, or binge eating until they feel uncomfortably full. Struggling individuals may be stressed from the demands of their jobs, expectations from their family, and pressures from their peers.

With the multitude of environmental stressors already influencing disordered eating habits, social media has now been added to the list. Now more than ever, since social media is used by individuals of all ages and backgrounds, it has begun to play a larger role in the influence and development of eating disorders.

Social Media’s Effect on Eating Disorders

Although social media itself is not the sole cause of an eating disorder, it has fueled individuals to engage in disordered patterns of eating. According to research, “media is a causal risk factor for the development of eating disorders” and has a strong influence on a person’s body dissatisfaction, eating patterns, and poor self-concept.” Individuals begin to constantly compare themselves to thin models, their peers, as well as famous social media users and begin to feel inadequate about their own self-image.

With the increased use of social media among peers, it has been increasingly difficult to avoid the constant peer pressure surrounding the ‘ideal body type’. Social media’s presence in everyday life is so large that individuals now care about the opinions of people that they have never met before. Body shamers use social media as a platform to talk negatively about someone’s image and it strongly affects the emotional well-being of individuals who already struggle with their relationship with food.

Cyberbullying

The social media platform has also made it easier for bullying to infiltrate an individual's daily life, beyond the parameters of the school day. According to the National Eating Disorders Association “as many as 65% of people with eating disorders say bullying contributed to their condition.” According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “about 3 percent of U.S. adolescents are affected by an eating disorder, but most do not receive treatment for their specific eating condition.” The obsession over self-image and fitting peer and societal expectations in the social media world has also opened the door for body shamers and bullying to occur more frequently.

Bullying has tremendous influences on a young person's self-concept and behaviors. For instance, individuals who experience bullying often times show signs of skipping meals more often or binge eating to cope with the pain.[1] The different types of social media channels have increasingly made it difficult to escape the stressors that make young people feel unworthy and inadequate. It is time to start the conversation about social media and use it as a tool for empowerment instead of discouragement and shame.

Becoming informed on the effects that social media can have on all ages can help you or someone you love begin the conversation and take action against the negativity on social media.

Use Social Media for Empowerment

The following are useful ways to escape the negative effects of social media and use it as a tool for self-empowerment.

1. Unplug.- Go outside, call a friend, or practice meditation. Whatever you want to do, make sure you put your phone or computer away. Engage in activities that allow you to be free from the digital world. Sign off from your accounts, deactivate them, or put them away when you are experiencing a moment of difficulty or stress. Instead, do something enjoyable with supportive friends and family, and then you will forget the digital world ever existed.

2. Unfollow.- If you are following individuals who are obsessed over posting their food, image, and exercise regimes, unfollow them and be free. Block unfriendly social media users and body shamers and only use the digital world to celebrate friends and family. Escape from the constant images of thin models and diet fads by not engaging in those accounts. You should only follow the accounts that are inspiring and motivational and encourage you to love and respect yourself for who you are.

3. Unwind.- Live in the present moment and release yourself from the stress caused by the digital world. Put away your phone and engage in mindful eating behaviors. Focus on your food and the loved ones you are surrounded by during meal times. Replace time on social media with mindfulness techniques such as yoga, meditation, or cooking healthy meals. When you unwind from the day’s events without always checking social media, it will allow you to be present in the moment.

Use social media as a platform for self-empowerment. Surround yourself with supportive friends and family in your digital world and do not be afraid to celebrate who you are. You will find that if you unplug sometimes and unfollow the social media stressors, you will become a much happier and healthier individual.

If you or someone you love is experiencing body shaming, seek help and report the user. You will not only help yourself recover from your eating disorder, but you will gain the confidence needed in living a healthy life again.

Begin the Healing Process

Beginning the healing process is essential for individuals struggling with an eating disorder. The only way to defeat the online trolls is to take charge of your online account and not allow people to make you or someone you love feel inferior or unworthy. To help establish mindfulness and self-confidence, seeking treatment for an eating disorder that specializes in whole person care will help you gain the strength needed to battle the body shamers and defeat your disorder.

Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists are highly trained professionals who are equipped to help individuals establish self-soothing techniques, meal plans, and personalized coping mechanisms learned through methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to best treat any eating disorder. Specialists empathize with each patient and create a personalized recovery plan that fits the needs of every individual. With an emphasis on cultivating self-compassion and feeding the mind, body, and spirit with healthful nutrients, individuals will build the resiliency needed to fully recover from their eating disorder.

Greta Gleissner is the Founder of Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists, a nationwide network of eating disorder treatment specialists that provide meal coaching and recovery skills such as CBT, DBT, ACT, MI, etc. EDRS works alongside treatment programs, teams and families to provide transitional aftercare support for post-residential treatment clients.

[1] https://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/warning-signs/index.html

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