The Effect of Social Media on Eating Disorders

Social media seems to be as much a part of today’s culture as eating and sleeping. It is engrained in our daily lives. This can make it particularly difficult to separate what is portrayed in the virtual world to actual reality. Statistics show that 82% of Canadians aged 18-34 use Facebook weekly and 54% use Instagram weekly1. This age group spends, on average, 30 minutes per day on Instagram alone2. Because of that, we are more exposed to the personal lives of strangers than ever before.

While social media can be used in a positive way, such as strengthening social connections, promoting group identity and providing support otherwise not available offline, it can also be harmful as it portrays highly unrealistic ideals of beauty and body size3. Not only are unrealistic ideals highlighted, they are reinforced by likes and positive comments making it seem like a goal to be strived for4. However, based on research, it is a fact that people are more likely to post pictures of themselves in which they are portrayed positively5. This perpetuates unrealistic ideals by presenting a false reality. It’s no wonder that those who use social media, Facebook in particular, are more concerned with their appearance, engaged more in dieting behaviours and compare themselves to others more than non-users6.

So how does social media use have anything to do with eating disorders? Key predictors of eating disorders include a social pressure for thinness and internalization of the thin ideal7. With the advent of social media, the thin ideal is an ever-present pressure and can easily become a personal value. Research has shown that those who engage in appearance comparison towards someone they idealize, known as upwards comparison, experience higher levels of body dissatisfaction7. Not only does social media sites like Instagram have millions of photos uploaded every day, they also can be highly edited to represent the thin ideal7. And what causes us to compare ourselves to others so frequently? Social comparison theory states that we compare ourselves to others in order to determine our self-worth by judging if we are better or worse off than someone else8. It is now easier than ever to compare your body to whomever you want on social media. They are there on your phone whenever you choose to browse their profile. So then it becomes a vicious cycle: see edited photo representing the thin ideal, compare yourself to that person, feel bad about your own body, then strive for thin ideal which doesn’t actually exist.

As there is a positive correlation between social media use and disordered eating4, consider being proactive in the use and management of your social media platforms. Here are some tips to foster a positive relationship with social media to promote eating disorder recovery:

  • Unfollow accounts that cause you to compare yourself to that person and make you feel bad about your body
  • Follow accounts that promote body diversity
  • Take a break from social media: use this time to practice self-care and spend quality time with family and friends
  • Limit the time you spend on social media: give yourself boundaries, such as only checking Instagram for half an hour in the morning
  • Choose to be honest with your followers instead of painting a false picture that may cause others to compare themselves to something that isn’t real

Remember that the truth is not always represented in the virtual world so don’t be deceived by sneaky editing and filters. Social media may perpetuate the ever-present thin ideal but if used wisely, can foster a positive community to promote eating disorder recovery. Choose to be a light and speak truth into the virtual world as you may be the positive voice someone needs to hear.


References

  1. Canada social media usage by age (2017). | Statistic. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/800880/canada-weekly-social-media-use-age/
  2. Turner, P. G., & Lefevre, C. E. (2017). Instagram use is linked to increased symptoms of orthorexia nervosa.Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity,22(2), 277-284. doi:10.1007/s40519-017-0364-2
  3. Saunders, J. F., & Eaton, A. A. (2018). Snaps, Selfies, and Shares: How Three Popular Social Media Platforms Contribute to the Sociocultural Model of Disordered Eating Among Young Women.Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking,21(6), 343-354. doi:10.1089/cyber.2017.0713
  4. Mabe, A. G., Forney, K. J., & Keel, P. K. (2014). Do you “like” my photo? Facebook use maintains eating disorder risk.International Journal of Eating Disorders,47(5), 516-523. doi:10.1002/eat.22254
  5. Sidani, J. E., Shensa, A., Hoffman, B., Hanmer, J., & Primack, B. A. (2016). The Association between Social Media Use and Eating Concerns among US Young Adults.Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,116(9), 1465-1472. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.03.021
  6. Fardouly, J., & Vartanian, L. R. (2015). Negative comparisons about ones appearance mediate the relationship between Facebook usage and body image concerns.Body Image,12, 82-88. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2014.10.004
  7. Fardouly, J., Willburger, B. K., & Vartanian, L. R. (2017). Instagram use and young women’s body image concerns and self-objectification: Testing mediational pathways.New Media & Society,20(4), 1380-1395. doi:10.1177/1461444817694499
  8. Social Comparison Theory | Psychology Today Canada. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/social-comparison-theory

 

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