Zendaya Award-Winning Actor Celebrates All Body Types. Model Bella Hadid candidly shares how she dealt with anorexia and warns her Instagram followers that “social media isn’t real.”
Despite their efforts to be role models, images of celebrities and videos on social media can turn people off with negative body images, especially those with eating disorders.
This content — and social media itself — does not cause eating disorders.
“Social media can be an empowering tool for communication and community building,” says Lauren Smaller, vice president for mission and education at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
But Smaller says, “It can be quite the opposite and reinforce unhealthy messages about diet and appearance.”
The NEDA estimates that approximately 29 million people in the United States will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Most of these people – 95% – are between the ages of 12 and 25, an age group for which social media is an essential part of everyday life.
The problem has grown with the increased use of social media since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smaller says calls, texts and conversations to the NEDA helpline rose 58% from March 2020 to October 2021.
Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening medical conditions associated with them suicide risk. People of all sizes, ages, racial and ethnic groups, and genders can suffer from eating disorders. These cases can be treated. If you or someone you know has had a harmful relationship with food or body shape, get help. You can start with your doctor or therapist. Or call or text the NEDA Helpline at 800-931-2237.
shame and guilt
Research links social media use with eating disorders including:
- anorexia nervosa: Lack of eating and often obsessed with thinness. This condition can cause serious health problems and can be fatal.
- bulimia nervosa: Eating large amounts of food in a short period of time and then trying to counteract it in unhealthy ways such as cleansing, diuretics, laxatives, excessive fasting or exercise.
- binge eating disorder: Binge eating without emptying or other attempts to compensate for frequent large amounts of food.
The relationship between social media use and binge eating appears in a review of 2022 studies. “The more participants use social media, the more likely they are to increase their appetite or intention to eat,” says researcher Bo Ra Kim of the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing. This may lead to overeating.
Other unhealthy behaviors include compulsive exercise and so-called cheat meals. “Although cheat meals can be packaged as a reward for me to exercise and diet hard, losing control during that time can have negative health consequences in many cases,” Kim says.
Research also shows that seeing perfect (and unrealistic) Instagram photos can negatively affect how young women feel about their bodies. Efforts to promote body positivity and discover unreal content may help counter this.
Some people do whatever it takes to look like the people they think look perfect, regardless of whether that’s a realistic or healthy goal.
“There’s a Lot of Hero Worship,” says Nancy Maramore Kaguth, Ph.D., a psychologist in Pittsburgh and author of “There’s a Lot of Hero Worship.” Get Reel: Produce Your Own Life. “It generates the false reality of thinking that you need to look that way. You are so attached to someone on social media that you stop separating yourself from the fact that they are just people who pay to look good. That is their job.”
Kagoth says people also overlook the fact that in real life, celebrities don’t even look like their visuals without all the makeup, styling, and photo editing. The idea of what is “perfect” or “looks good” is also subjective and varies across groups. However, it can be hard to resist social media images if you are prone to eating disorder or body image issues.
Kaguth points out that these effects are not new. Before social media, the unhealthy outlook came from magazines, television, movies, and billboards. But social media can bombard you with photos and messages that can multiply and track you, thanks to algorithms and shared posts. Comparisons can go on and on.
Increased use of social media
Both Facebook and Instagram, which are owned by Meta, make it easy for people to change their settings to opt out of seeing certain ads or content. For example, they can adjust their settings so that if they type in certain words on Instagram, like “skinny,” they will be automatically taken to self-help content. TikTok has a page dedicated to eating disorders awareness.
However, the Social Media Victims Law Center says tech companies haven’t done enough to protect users. The center has filed 14 eating disorder cases against social media companies.
NEDA has asked Congress to allocate at least $1 million to the National Institute of Mental Health to research the effects of social media on teens and children. NEDA also called on lawmakers to push tech companies to release their research on social media, hold them accountable more, and stop them from targeting young people with ads and content.
“We continue to ask social media companies to evaluate their policies and continue to work better to make their sites safer for users,” Smaller says.
Check social media and other ways to help
Experts and researchers encourage healthcare providers to evaluate the social media activities of their patients. They also offer these tips for individuals and families to help reduce the impact of social media on mental health:
- Get help if you think you might have it eating disorders Body image issues, or if your use of social media is affecting how you feel about yourself. Consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Kim says. Mindfulness programs are highly recommended treatments.
- Evaluate the message, the photos you see, and how they make you feel, says Smaller. Make sure the content is healthy for you.
- I don’t dwell on numbers related to food measurement or weight. This includes social media posts that include specific weights or measurements of body parts, body mass index (BMI) levels, and calorie counts.
- Spend more face-to-face time with family and friends who are positive, supportive, and healthy for you.
- If you’re a parent of a teen, be aware of the spaces they are in – not only in real life, but also on social media.
- Take time out from social media. “It loses some of its power when you’re not attached to it,” Kagoth says.