Effects of Social Media on Eating Disorders

Hand holding a Social Media 3d Sphere sign on white background.

Social-media sites have come under fire in recent years for hosting content promoting eating disorders. Commonly known as “thinspiration,” “thinspo,” “pro-ana” and “pro-mia,” searches on these terms return images of emaciated bodies and suggestions from users about how to develop or sustain an eating disorder. And we all know the craze of the ‘#’. It’s very simple to #bodygoals and be be swarmed down under with thousands of photos of the ‘ideal body’.

Several key characteristics of social media make it an ideal place to promote the pro-eating-disorder mentality, including:

1. Increased exposure to information related to dieting and weight loss.

Dieting mentality has become normative in our culture, in part because people flock to social media to publicize their diet, weight-loss strategies and results.

For example, “thigh gap”  is a popular unhealthy body ideal discussed widely in pro-eating-disorder social-media sites.

2. A medium for social comparison.

The literature tells us that social comparison affects deficits in self-esteem.In reality, this content results in feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and body dissatisfaction in otherwise normal women and can compel an urgent need to take action through restriction, purging or over-exercising to achieve greater thinness among those struggling with negative body image or an eating disorder.

3. The social-media paradox.

Social media seeks to promote connection with others, but for many at risk for or suffering from eating disorders, it supports isolation and withdrawal from real-world relationships. For those already dealing with interpersonal difficulties and issues around self-esteem and confidence, spending too much time online in their social networks is a means of avoidance, passivity and minimizing direct communication with people.

4. Anonymity.

Eating disorders thrive in secrecy. The high-achieving, perfectionistic, people-pleasing individuals who tend to suffer from these complex illnesses often go to great lengths to hide their intense body dissatisfaction and eating-disorder behaviors.


Start Using Social Media Productively

1. Avoid pro-eating-disorder content altogether, no matter your stage of recovery.

Despite administrative efforts by various social-media sites to eliminate “thinspiration” content, there will always be unhealthy content and opinions somewhere online. Simply put, avoid this content because engaging with pro-eating-disorder mentality reinforces body dissatisfaction and challenges recovery.

2. Engage with recovery-focused eating-disorder content and communities.

Seek out communities and resources to help you and your loved ones understand these complex illnesses and garner support from those at similar stages of the recovery journey. Personal narratives of recovery are particularly common and powerful in social media.

3. Consider blogging or sharing your story.

Writing, along with most other forms of creative expression, can be healing for those struggling with eating disorders. Commit to sharing your story in recovery-focused communities in a way that feels comfortable to you. Start a blog that is visible and inspiring to anyone, or just share updates related to your recovery progress with friends and followers.

4. Limit your time on social media.

While social media can provide a supportive community, establishing real-world connections and nurturing relationships with friends, loved ones and colleagues are equally important in the recovery journey.

5. Report pro-eating-disorder content to site administrators.

It’s important that social-media administrators continue to receive feedback about dangerous pro-eating-disorder content in their communities and the potential impact it has on users. While previous efforts to remove, contain or limit access to unhealthy content have been largely ineffective in stunting the reach of this dangerous mentality, unified voices calling for action can only compel sites to do more to protect their users.

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