The Impact of Social Media on Eating Disorders

On social media, valuable and worthwhile content is mixed with the kind that's speculative or supported by extremely little evidence. This can have serious consequences on our physical and mental health.
The Impact of Social Media on Eating Disorders

Last update: 21 November, 2022

In the age of Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and other social media platforms, the volume of information that reaches us on a daily basis is overwhelming. In fact, never before has information been so democratized. It only takes one click on a screen to have unlimited access to all kinds of data, advice, recommendations, and expert theses.

All the information that was previously relegated to specialized sectors, is now available to anyone who wants to access it. Furthermore, thanks to the algorithms with which these platforms work, it’s often not even necessary for us to actively search for this information. However, is all that glitters really gold?

One informative field that’s gained a great deal of popularity and presence in recent times on social media is nutrition. Considering the current concern over appearance and physical health, this boom is hardly surprising.

After all, we all want to take care of ourselves and eat well in a healthy and sustainable way. We’re concerned about the way we look and are also concerned about our health. We increasingly take into account the quality of the food we consume. Food is our fuel and we seek to give our bodies the best kind possible, to ensure that our engines will continue to function in optimal conditions for as long as possible.

Experts on social media

With these kinds of social conditions in their favor, expert profiles in the field of nutrition are becoming increasingly prevalent on social media. This sector was previously relegated to private consultations that, for many people, were economically unaffordable. However, it’s escaped from its niche market to raise awareness and educate via our screens. In fact, social media accounts with nutritionist profiles or those that are focused on healthy lifestyles have an endless stream of likes and followers.

Worried teenager looking at mobile
Social media can have a really negative impact on eating disorders.

Social media is a double-edged sword in eating disorders

If we stop and think about it, this democratization of specialized information may not be as innocuous as we might think. Obviously, it’s great that experts openly share their knowledge with us on social media. It’s terrific that they interact with us and solve our doubts without us having to go to face-to-face consultations or spend any money. Indeed, it’s truly marvelous that more information is reaching increasingly more people.

However, we must remember that neither Instagram, TikTok nor any social media with similar characteristics obliges whoever opens an account to prove their knowledge of the subject they’re going to talk about. As a matter of fact, they only need to know a little about web positioning and visibility for the social media algorithm to obtain ‘likes’ and for them to reach a stratospheric number of followers. Therefore, anyone can call themselves an expert.

Social media intrusion is the order of the day. As followers ourselves, we must be clear that a greater number of followers doesn’t make one account more professional or better informed than another. Only the academic and professional career of those who communicate serves as an indicator of their good work and professionalism.

This intrusiveness is extremely dangerous in a subject as complex and sensitive as nutrition. In fact, several studies have verified the direct relationship between eating disorders (ED) and the use of social media, both in adults and adolescents. These disorders seriously alter the physical and mental health of those who suffer from them. Moreover, social media, misused and in the wrong hands, is a great magnet for them.

Nutritionist or influencer?

Imagine that you’re at home or on a break from work or studies and decide to go onto Instagram. Browsing through photos, videos, and stories, you come across the video of a man who claims to be an expert in nutrition. He tells you about forbidden foods, tricks to reduce calories and lose weight faster, or how to quickly recover from the excesses of summer.

He has thousands of followers. People comment on his posts appreciating the value of the content he shares. They claim he’s made them see the light and changed their lives. So, you follow him too. Because you don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to access such valuable knowledge. After all, if he has so much terrific support, he must be a genuinely authoritative source.

Once you start following this expert gentleman, Instagram suggests similar profiles for you to check out. You start to receive more tips to improve your physical appearance. And so, with just one click, you start to adopt compensation behaviors and begin to demonize foods or even entire food groups. You become obsessed with the number on the scales and start to increase your exercise until you’re exhausted.

Your self-esteem is disappearing, like the calories in your diet. You start to feel guilty when you eat something ‘wrong.’ You start to binge eat due to your anxiety. Moreover, your emotional discomfort is becoming out of control. You’ve developed an eating disorder. It might even have been one that already existed but your symptoms have worsened.

Ethics

One would certainly hope that this man didn’t wake up one day with the idea of causing people mental disorders or worsening existing conditions. Maybe he does have some nutrition training, or at least you’d like to believe so. Even so, his handling of information and disclosure is unethical and unprofessional.

The two concepts of ethics and professionalism are essential when disclosing such sensitive information. When they’re set aside in favor of likes, follows and positive comments, we’re not looking at an account of an expert in nutrition. We’re looking at an influencer. As such they’re certainly an expert, but only in gaining followers and making an economic profit from social media.

Woman recording a feeding video
Not all people who speak about nutrition are experts or specialized in the content they offer.

You choose who you want to follow

As a consumer of social media, it’s not in your hands to decide which accounts should be closed or which should have more recognition. Beyond not interacting with certain content, trying to do your bit to not give them visibility, and denouncing those that you consider are promoting harmful effects on health, (whether physical, mental, or both), there aren’t really many more tools at your disposal.

That said, you have the power to decide who you want to follow and what content you want to keep. If you’re really interested in information in a certain field, you have the option of looking for really expert profiles. Only by critically reviewing the messages that reach you will you free yourself from information contamination.

Just as following someone on social media is as easy as clicking a button, so is unfollowing them. If you suffer from an eating disorder or you think you may be drifting toward one, we recommend that you visit a specialist. They’ll be able to help you. In fact, not only will they see you through a difficult time, but they’ll also give you an individualized plan, one that’s much better adapted to your own personal circumstances than any general guidelines you might find on social media.

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The Negative Influence of Social Media on Eating Disorders
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The Negative Influence of Social Media on Eating Disorders

Recent studies confirm the negative influence of social media on eating disorders. It's more apparent among adolescent girls.



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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.