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How Does Social Media Trigger Disordered Eating Behaviors?

Recently, the National Institute of Health’s National Library of Medicine went a long way toward proving that there is a connection between social media and disordered eating. According to a recent study, up to 2.6 percent of the population will need treatment for anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or another eating disorder before they can legally drink alcohol. This research showed a relationship between eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and self-perception (frequent causes of eating disorders) and social media in a sample of about 1800 adults aged 19 to 25.

For this reason, the experts who specialize in treating eating disorders have begun to take social media into account. When people at risk of developing an eating disorder are washed over by the images and videos they see on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, social media can be a strong triggering factor in the rise of bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders?

To make sure people truly understand the risks, it’s important to first outline the signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.In some situations, people might be confused about the difference between the two prominent eating disorders. Some aspects of bulimia nervosa may be present in other eating disorders, such as binge eating episodes, which of course are found in binge eating disorder.

For an eating disorder to be classified as bulimia nervosa, an individual must display repeated and regular binge eating episodes, which areusually conducted in secret, and often come with an intense feeling of guilt or shame about the disordered eating behaviors. People with bulimia nervosa often feel like they can’t control their eating behaviors and also feel a loss of control over their weight.

In the classic diagnosis of bulimia nervosa, binge eating episodes, or even regular meals are followed by purging. Purging methods, like fasting or extreme dieting, self-induced vomiting (the classic behavior symptom), compulsive exercise patterns, or abusing laxatives or diuretics are used as a way to offset the potential weight gain. To make a full diagnosis, these actions must recur at least weekly for a few months.

Another symptom that relates to bulimia nervosa is a poor, negative, or distorted body image – thinking they are “fat” or “ugly.”  This can be triggered by media imagery and social media.

Eating Disorder Content Appearing on Social Media

People with eating disorders often have a flawed perception of their bodies, and make comparisons to other people’s bodies, especially idealized bodies seen in advertising. Social media’s impact on a vulnerable person’s self-image, especially among young people, can hardly be overstated. Younger people live their entire lives online, viewing their social media platforms several times a day, and being exposed to idealized bodies each time.

While social media can certainly help people connect with old pals and forge new friendships, it can also be riddled with bullies and harassment. Social media profiles are curated, featuring altered photos as well as unrealistic, entirely positive depictions of others’ lifestyles. Through the use of social media, young people can reach out for support and make new connections.

Although social media has many pluses, it can coax people into thinking that they aren’t living up to society’s expectations of them, or that their body is unattractive. Even more than with traditional media like TV or films social media can further distort a person’s mental health state. The user can interact with the “ideal” model or even people they know who are presenting a curated version of their life, adding to the pressure for perfection the eating disorder brings.

Adolescents Are Often Targeting by Social Media Algorithms

Eating disorders often make their first appearance during a person’s adolescent years.Although they may appear at any point in a person’s life disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa often first show symptoms around age 16 – 18. Unfortunately, this is also the age that people often become very active on social media. Of course, everyone from kids to grandparents is on social media, but some sites, especially Instagram and TikTok tend to skew younger. Although these platforms have rules in place against triggering or pro-eating disorder content, it’s becoming clear that these harmful posts are being presented to teenagers in a near-constant way.

In 2021, the problem became so prominent that Congress called in leaders from Facebook ad Instagram to address them (as well as other social ills caused or exacerbated by social media). On Instagram, many influencers work in the fitness/beauty space, presenting images and videos of idealized bodies and promoting weight loss in a way that’s detrimental to consumers’ body image. For adolescents, whose body image is still developing, this was found to impact self-esteem and lead to disordered behaviors that might blossom into disordered eating. Worse, businesses advertising on Instagram and Facebook can promote their posts to targeted age groups and demographics, meaning they can specify their posts are reaching, for example, young women aged 16 – 22.

A relative newcomer to asocial media, and one that’s hugely popular with teenagers, is the video-centric platform TikTok. Featuring user—generated videos, TikTok uses algorithms to present content to consumers based on their interests and viewing history. The platform has protocols in place to prevent triggering content, yet a recent New York Times study found that videos relating to eating disorders and self-harm were being recommended to new users as young as 13 years old within 30 minutes of signing up. Once users liked or even watched content related to body image or mental health, the platforms’ algorithms recommended eating disorder-related posts almost immediately. Users have employed code and euphemistically named titles to bypass the protocols preventing ED content from appearing.

Treating Eating Disorders In the Age of Social Media

The earlier treatment for an eating disorder like bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa begins, the better -so that a proper diagnosis and treatment plan can be begun. The treatment plan can often include a guide to navigating the world of social media with a recovered mindset. Understanding how Social media affects the way we see ourselves is key to a sustainable recovery path; for teenagers, establishing their self-image and being savvy about the way they’re being mediated will help them establish a healthy relationship with their body as they transition into adulthood.

Carefully crafted and created solutions for bulimia nervosa recovery must be tailored to address each individual’s circumstances and treatment needs. While many young people count on social media to stay connected to their support systems, a psychologically gentle treatment plan that focuses on high-frequency individual therapy provides the foundation for a recovery that can withstand the inevitable bumps that life — and social media — can deliver.

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.