The Negative Influence of Social Media on Eating Disorders

Social media has changed our lives, in most cases in a positive way. However, it also has a negative side and, in vulnerable people, it can predispose or aggravate some psychological disorders, such as eating disorders.
The Negative Influence of Social Media on Eating Disorders

Last update: 26 July, 2022

A few years ago, no one could’ve imagined that social media would become as important as it is today. Indeed, it now forms a part of the lives of billions of people. It entertains, amuses, and teaches us, although it also conditions and harms us. The negative influence of social media on eating disorders is a clear example.

Highly edited or restricted content and images are shared on this platform, projecting a distorted idea of reality. Toned and slender silhouettes, satiny and tanned skin, and a complete absence of wrinkles, stretch marks, and cellulite are some examples of this fictitious reality. Furthermore, given the high exposure of these networks, we receive these stimuli constantly.

This type of content, which is also often retouched, can contribute to certain insecurities. Fortunately, most of us don’t give it too much importance. However, for someone struggling with body image issues, it can be a risk factor when it comes to eating disorders and mental health in general.

Worried teenager looking at social networks
Comparisons on social media are related to body dissatisfaction.

Prevalence and risk factors associated with eating disorders

Eating disorders were first described in the 17th century. Although it wasn’t until the 1990s that the first epidemiological studies were published. Globally, over recent years, eating disorders have increased from 3.4 to 7.8 percent (SingleCare, 2020)

The origin of eating disorders is multifactorial and multicausal, but there are some common risk factors:

  • Biological. Most people with eating disorders are women who begin to manifest symptoms during adolescence or youth.
  • Genetic. Studies conducted estimate that genetic predisposition is a significant variable that favors suffering from this type of disorder.
  • Psychological. People who previously suffered from affective disorders, personality disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or impulse control disorder more frequently present symptoms of eating disorders. Low self-esteem, social withdrawal, dissatisfaction, and perfectionism are frequent characteristics of people with eating disorders.
  • Behavioral. Restrictive diets, fasting, consuming diuretics or laxatives, taking alcohol or other drugs, and practicing high-performance sports or sports in which the body plays a special role also predispose individuals to develop eating disorders.
  • Family. The family context plays a determining role both in the development of eating disorders and in their maintenance. In unstructured, conflictive, poorly cohesive, overprotective, rigid families, with a history of eating disorders or other mental pathologies, this type of disorder appears more frequently.
  • Environmental and sociocultural. Living in Western society is, in itself, a risk factor. Indeed, the pressure exerted by the media and social media, which we’ll talk about next, favor the appearance of eating disorders.

In addition, it must be taken into account that a stressful life event that occurs in any of these areas will increase the risk of suffering from eating disorders. Stress, especially when it lasts over time and becomes chronic is, in itself, a key factor in the appearance of any eating disorder as well as many other psychological disorders.

The influence of social media on eating disorders

As we mentioned earlier, social media can encourage a person to develop an eating behavior disorder.

Much research has been carried out on this subject. A study conducted by Saunders and Eaton gave questionnaires to 637 young women who’d never been diagnosed with an eating disorder. The researchers concluded that there was a significant relationship between the consumption of social media and the presence of body surveillance, social comparisons, and body dissatisfaction.

In another study conducted by Wilkisch et al., they found that tweens with Facebook or Instagram were much more likely to skip meals and engage in rigorous physical activity compared to others who didn’t use those networks. Other similar studies also corroborated body image dissatisfaction in people who used social media.

The canons of beauty that we (especially girls and adolescents) internalize are reinforced by social media. In fact, as a rule, those who post messages and photos that comply with these regulations receive a far better reception than those who don’t. Furthermore, uploading personal content to social media exposes young women to evaluation for which they’re often unprepared.

Another negative factor concerns exposure time. García Puertas conducted a study in which he concluded that more time on social media is related to a higher probability of eating disorders, as well as unhealthy self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. In addition, if the time on social media is spent following health and fitness accounts, the negative effect is enhanced.

Crying teen with cellphone, depicting negative influence of social media on eating disorders.
People with low self-esteem are far more vulnerable to the effects of comparisons on social media

Final thoughts on eating disorders and the use of social media

As is evident from the studies mentioned, social media can increase the risk of suffering from eating disorders. However, this doesn’t mean that all adolescents who use it are in danger of developing an eating disorder.

Everyone is different and we don’t all react in the same way to the same stimuli. A neutral stimulus for one individual might be a really aggravating factor for another.  Therefore, the personal circumstances of each individual, coupled with the factors already mentioned, will largely determine whether someone develops an eating disorder or not.

Social media has only been around for a relatively short time. Consequently, there are no long-term studies of how it can affect us. This is something that’ll only be evidenced over time. That said, there are conclusive studies on how it affects us in the short and medium term. Given the complexity of living in the 21st century, it’s worth learning about this so that we can act preventively.

In many cases, without a doubt, limiting the use of social media is an appropriate course of action. However, we must understand that social media is only one factor and not the only one. The best method of prevention is to be present in the lives of our adolescents. They’re the individuals at the greatest risk of suffering from eating disorders

Good family communication, and observing if there are any changes in behavior, character, or friendships can also give us many clues about the appearance of any disorder.

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