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July 25, 2023

The Impact of Social Media on Eating Disorders: A Closer Look

Social media has woven itself into the fabric of our lives, connecting us with people and information across the globe. While social platforms offer numerous benefits, it is essential to acknowledge their potentially negative impact on mental health, including how they can contribute to the development or worsening of eating disorders

In this blog, we delve into the relationship between eating disorders and social media, shedding light on the challenges people with eating disorders may face online and how all of us can work toward a healthier digital environment.

The Influence of Social Media on Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complex psychiatric illnesses that form due to a combination of various genetic, biological, and environmental factors. Our culture’s fixation on appearance—including cultural ideals of body size and shape—is an environmental factor that can contribute to the development of these illnesses. Unfortunately, social media often enforces unrealistic appearance standards through algorithms that show carefully curated and altered images, perpetuating comparison culture and online harassment. 

Comparison Culture

One of the significant pitfalls of social media is the prevalence of comparison culture. Many social media users follow actors, models, and influencers who conform to unrealistic appearance standards. These celebrities often have access to plastic surgery, physical trainers, personal chefs, and expensive products that allow them to achieve a standard not accessible to the general public. In addition, celebrities often have professional photographers editing their photos and possibly digitally altering their body shape and size. 

Retouching apps are frequently used to alter a person’s appearance on social media, and not by celebrities alone. Whether these apps are used or not, it is common to fall into the trap of comparing your appearance and life to your online peers – famous or not. You might find yourself thinking, “If I had the same body as so-and-so, I would like the way I looked,” or “If I looked like this person, my life would be perfect.” This comparison can further fuel feelings of inadequacy and perpetuate a distorted body image in those with eating disorders. 

Practice breaking free from this comparison cycle by:

  • Minimizing the time spent on social media
  • Giving yourself a break from social media
  • Noticing how different accounts impact your mood, and choosing to mute or unfollow those that don’t make you feel good
  • Remembering that what is shown online is often a carefully curated highlight reel of someone’s life

Cyberbullying and Online Harassment

In addition to perpetuating comparison culture, social media is also a place where cyberbullying and online harassment thrive, largely due to the anonymity of the online landscape. Verbal attacks and body shaming comments can deeply impact vulnerable individuals, further exacerbating the risk of developing or worsening an eating disorder. Cyberbullying can breed symptoms of depression and anxiety as well, common co-occurring conditions and risk factors for the development of an eating disorder. It is crucial to recognize the psychological toll that online bullying can have on mental health. 

There are some ways to protect yourself from online harassment, including:

  • Putting your account on private and allowing only people you know to follow you
  • Blocking anyone who comments unkind words on your posts
  • Reporting inappropriate behavior to the social media platform where you received the comment

Cultivating a Healthier Digital Environment

While social media can contribute to the development of eating disorders, it also holds potential for positive change. By leveraging these platforms, we can disseminate accurate information, challenge eating disorder stereotypes, and nurture supportive communities.

  • Disseminate accurate information. Inaccurate information is rampant within diet culture and the beauty industry. Harmful rules related to food and body have been repeated so many times online and in our daily lives that they have even become accepted as “facts” (e.g., “You shouldn’t eat after 8 pm,” “Carbs are bad,” and “You need to exercise to ‘make up’ for what you’ve eaten”). Social media can be an accessible tool to counter this misinformation. By sharing accurate information about nutrition, movement, and eating disorders, as well as empowering messages that emphasize worth beyond appearance, we can create a supportive environment for those working toward recovery.
  • Challenge eating disorder stereotypes. Those with eating disorders are often represented as young, white, thin women. This is harmful because people of all races, sexes, socioeconomic statuses, ages, sizes, and sexualities experience eating disorders, and they all deserve to feel represented. Eating disorders affect all kinds of people, and all of those people deserve help. Social media can be used to promote representation in the recovery community, amplifying diverse voices and experiences to ensure everyone with an eating disorder feels seen and supported.
  • Contribute to or create a supportive community. Online harassment is the dark side of social media, but the bright side is the countless supportive communities. Eating disorders thrive on isolation. Social media can help people connect with others who understand what they’re going through and feel less alone. It can also be great for sharing hope and inspiration through recovery stories

At Veritas Collaborative, we recognize the importance of fostering a digital environment that supports individuals struggling with eating disorders. By promoting accurate information that challenges eating disorders stereotypes and sharing inspiring recovery stories, we can contribute to a positive shift in the way we engage with social platforms. Let us come together to create a digital space that celebrates diversity, promotes body acceptance, and fosters resilience in the face of societal pressures.

If social media is affecting your, a loved one’s, or your patient’s eating habits and body image, please reach out for help. Contact Veritas Collaborative today by completing our online form or calling 1-855-875-5812.