Therapy Blog

Online Mirrors: Reflections on the Role of Social Media on Eating Disorders

Posted on Wednesday, February 28th, 2024 by Cristina Vrech

We often hear about the broad spectrum of risks posed by social media. One particular arena which provokes much scrutiny is the role social media plays in promoting unhealthy body image and dangerous eating behaviours. But the actual narrative is far more intricate and layered.

Image of black young lady with Afro haircut checks mobile phone, dressed in casual nightclothes, rests in bed.

Social media can often act as a digital mirror to the intricate constellation of human thoughts and actions. However, this space is more than just a slice of societal life; it is driven by algorithms crafted to elicit emotional reactions and sustain a loop of addictive behaviour. Yet, while its role in the increasing prevalence of eating disorders is scrutinised, it’s important to acknowledge that social media is not the sole contributor to these complex conditions.

Understanding eating disorders in the UK

The prevalence of eating disorders is rising. NHS Digital has shown a significant rise in eating disorder rates amongst young people, and approximately 1.25 million people in the UK currently living with an eating disorder. The types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS).

An eating disorder is a significant mental health condition that warrants earnest attention and care. There are several stereotypes around eating problems and eating disorders.  Anyone, regardless of age, gender or physical appearance can suffer from thoughts, feelings and behaviours that result in a difficult relationship with food.  The associations between diet culture, celebrity culture, beauty standards, social media and eating disorders have perhaps led to a culture which undermines the grievous impacts of eating disorders.

Social media’s role in the growing rates of eating disorders is multifaceted – but the impact of content which promotes eating disorders is undeniably a damaging factor. A study from the Institute for Global Health, University College London has shown that the use of social media platforms can lead to body image concerns and eating disorders. The most recent trend of ‘leggings legs’ (an evolution of the ‘thigh gap’ trend which became prevalent around 2012), recently banned by TikTok, the regular appearance of content promoting laxative use for weight loss, links between social media and muscle dysmorphia amongst men and a rise in rates of eating disorders post-pandemic, all indicate a real need for significant interventions, in the technology sector, in healthcare and in society.

It is a fact that untreated eating disorders may affect both mind and body, potentially resulting in distress and a range of health complications over time, including nutritional imbalances, digestive difficulties, fertility, organ damage and increased risk for conditions like diabetes and high cholesterol.

The very nature of an eating disorder means it can be hidden from view, hidden from the person trying to live with it.  This means it can be very difficult to receive a medical diagnosis. You should not need a diagnosis to get support for an eating problem.

 Exploring the impact of social media on eating disorders

Social media has undeniably increased the visibility of eating disorders, both through the pervasive content which promotes unhealthy eating behaviours and body image and through content which rallies against pro-eating disorder content and promotes body positivity.

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Social media breaks the silence around subjects which have long been considered taboo or stigmatised. Topics such as eating disorders, particularly in young people and men, have long been contentious. Phrases that dismiss the severity of eating disorders, such as “it’s just a phase” or “it doesn’t count,” have often been used to diminish the experiences of those affected. However, individuals have been countering this narrative through social media advocacy. Furthermore, the intense examination of body shapes, especially those of women, and the societal glorification of slimness, are pressures that existed well before social media and even the digital age itself.

On the other hand, social media has undeniably been used as a tool to foster unhealthy body image and eating and exercise behaviours which are linked to eating disorders. Trends such as “Pro-Ana/Mia” (short for anorexia and bulimia), the “thigh gap” and its recent offshoot “leggings legs” (implying that leggings – a form of comfortable sportswear – should only be worn by those with a “thigh gap”) have popularised eating disorders and the goal of thinness at all costs. This has enabled ideas which would once have been spread via pop culture, the media and word of mouth to be seen by anyone with a smartphone. Social media can also trigger people in recovery from eating disorders, and often encourage them to reengage in harmful behaviours.

Social media’s powerful influence over our ideals around body image and beauty cannot be understated. In its duality, it creates a complex web of conflicting stories, which potentially vulnerable users must attempt to navigate.

The parallels between algorithms and neuroplasticity 

The algorithms that tailor content to our interests can also trap us in echo chambers, amplifying messages that may not serve our highest good. These digital spaces can become inundated with content that reinforces negative self-image and unhealthy behaviours, highlighting the importance of the ability to understand and think critically about the content we consume.

This works similarly to the brain: when we repeatedly experience the same thoughts, over time, they become ingrained in our minds through a process called neuroplasticity. Similarly, when on social media, the content we consume and show interest in is then repeatedly shown to us. This can work to our benefit or our detriment, depending on what we engage with.

Social media uses algorithms that show users more of what they interact with by tracking likes, shares, comments, and how long they view posts. This can lead to a cycle that feels like a community. There is a great potential for danger when social media turns the harmful thinness often seen in pop culture and celebrity images into a group norm.

Starting to think about social media use begins with increasing awareness of the impact of comparison, body image and filters on emotional well-being. Consider how much time you spend editing and filtering your photos before you post.  Think about what you’re hoping for in posting these selfies.  Are you comparing yourself to others?  Are you hoping for likes and feedback?  Begin to think about valuing yourself just the way you are, unfiltered.

In the face of these challenges, there must be equal focus on digital well-being, adapting our attitude towards thinness as a marker of beauty and health, and ensuring that resources are available to support people who live with eating disorders adequately.

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Eating disorder recovering and healing

Healing and recovery mean different things to different people. It may feel worrying to think about the changes that recovery may bring.  Whatever recovery feels or looks like to the individual, it can take time to get there – even when they feel ready to start the process.  It could be helpful to think of your recovery as part of a life experience rather than something that takes place in a matter of weeks or months.  The recovery process from an eating disorder often involves a multidisciplinary team approach, incorporating various healthcare professionals to aid in both physical and mental healing.

The treatment for an eating disorder should be comprehensive, addressing the person’s entire well-being, including their diet, body health, mind, daily function, and relationships. It might involve creating meal plans and checking on physical health, as well as psychotherapy to gain a better understanding to ground the healing and positive changes. Not everyone around you will understand what it’s like to have an eating problem.  People may make comments that they think are helpful, but not realise that the things they say are painful to hear.

Understanding the feelings and behaviours linked to eating can be very helpful irrespective of a diagnosis or if you prefer to think of your experiences in a non-medicalised way.  A professional integrative therapist can work with you to identify triggers and causes of eating disorders, as well as any needs that are being met through unhealthy behaviour (such as control, safety or a sense of identity) and healthier ways of meeting these needs. They can also help to work through any anxieties or difficulties about what life will look like without their eating disorder. Counselling is also available to friends and family of a person living with an eating problem, to help gain an understanding of a loved one’s eating problem.  Therapy can help to explore practical and emotional ways of how to support the person you care about, whilst supporting you in maintaining your own emotional health and wellbeing.

When navigating personal identity in a society which focuses heavily on body image and in which online engagement is central to how we communicate, gain information and present ourselves, finding a balance between self-love, self-awareness and discernment is key. By engaging critically with social media, and focusing on positive messages online and in our social groups, we can contribute to a more supportive and healing digital ecosystem, as well as a collective shift towards mental and physical wellbeing.

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