Social Media and Eating Disorders

The presence of social media is impossible to escape these days. Keeping up with multiple accounts can become exhausting. For some, reflections fed back from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat (to name just a few channels) can often reinforce existing feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness as well as lead to increased isolation. On the other end of the spectrum, online interaction can allow sufferers of all mental health difficulties to develop a voice and feel supported. Social media can be of great comfort to some people with eating disorders by giving them a connection to others who understand and can relate to their struggles.

In 2014, a research team from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine analyzed 1,765 American adults aged 19 and 32 years old. They asked the participants to answer a series of questionnaires to describe their social media usage and also to determine their risk of developing eating disordered symptoms. Their findings revealed that the subjects who spent the most time engaged with social media each day had 2.2 times the risk of developing eating disorders. Additionally, those who most frequently checked their social media feeds weekly carried 2.6 times the risk.

For someone with an eating disorder, comparisons with others are common, with a tendency to compare with those perceived to be thinner or more fit. Eating disorder sufferers may berate themselves for not being as thin or sick as others they know with eating disorders, those they have met in treatment or online communities, or even friends or acquaintances. Social media can warp reality if you surround yourself with individuals struggling with the same condition as your sense of what is normal can be swallowed up.

Sufferers of eating disorders may also measure their own achievements and accomplishments against their peers and as a result, may feel they are lagging behind. A constant stream of acquaintances that constantly share news of their work advances, family and relationship statuses can lead to an influx of self-hate and the thought that any personal successes are lacking. This may be especially relevant if someone has missed out on chances to pursue milestones due to illness and/or treatment. Focusing on your own endeavors, however small they may seem, is crucial.

This can be challenging in the context of social media, in which a fixation on image is at the heart. Pictures are everywhere, perhaps airbrushed, filtered, and set at flattering angles. You can use tools to make yourself appear thinner, make your nose smaller or your waist slightly tighter. It is so important to keep reminding yourself that profiles are tailored and presented in a certain way. Everyone has the means to create a facade of themselves and often any cracks underneath are concealed from view. Australian Instagram star Essena O’Neil quit the website, with the parting message that social media is full of “contrived perfection to get attention.” Of this Jo Hemmings, dating coach and behavioral psychologist said: “social media has a way of making most of us feel inadequate, I take it with a pinch of salt – often their need to brag about their fabulous life is to convince themselves.”

In addition to being a general source of distress due to comparisons, social media outlets can also be home for toxic communities that may advocate unhealthy eating disordered eating behavior. Pro-anorexia (“pro-ana”) and pro-bulimia websites and online forums are publicly available; they are interactive and promote starvation. Users can swap “thinspiration” (“inspirational” pictures of extremely thin bodies) and compare body measurements and stats. It is all too easy for pick up ‘tips and tricks’ and additional harmful ideas, while making connections with people that share the same unhealthy obsessions and behaviors. While social media outlets, or even pro-ana sites and content do not directly cause eating disorders, they may normalize disordered eating behaviors and discourage recovery. Another concern is that such online communities can be a hotbed for bullying as hurtful words are far easier to spout from behind a laptop screen and veil of anonymity.

Despite the downsides, for people suffering from mental health problems generally and eating disorders specifically, appropriate online connections can be hugely helpful and valuable. I know this from personal experience. My involvement in online communities has given me a lifeline and the crutch I need to survive. I now have a handful of truly amazing and supportive friends I met through online forums that I now see on a regular basis, and they truly mean the world to me. Balance and vigilance is paramount. Becoming too fixated on your laptop screen whereby you avoid real life interactions is not healthy but this is not to mean that you cannot find sources of help and support that enable you to challenge yourself in real life situations and develop skills to battle social unease and anxiety.

This concept was also explored with case studies by Paola Tubaro, an expert on pro-ana sites who published ‘Social media: Feeding eating disorders? (2015)’. Tubaro states, ‘Small groups of peers, especially online, provide a welcoming and non-judgmental environment where persons with eating disorders can share their concerns.” Tubaro offers examples of several women who have benefited from blogging their experiences of battling anorexia and found a way to connect with people supportive of their recovery efforts. The author quotes Bella from London, from the recovery blog,, who stated, “When you connect with people who are similarly affected by eating disorders, you can receive comments of encouragement from people all over the world. It’s almost like getting a virtual hug.”

There are also many ways social media can be used in an affirmative way. Online campaigns and twitter backlashes against sexism and body shaming are becoming more and more common. In addition, targeted criticism over the use of unrealistic model images in our everyday sources of media occurs more frequently. Recovery-orientated blogs and message boards can also be extremely beneficial, as well as publicized National and International Eating Disorder Awareness weeks. In these ways, social media can promote recovery and create a sense of community that can make someone in the grip of an eating disorder feel less alone. It also makes it easier for people to stand up and lobby against injustices and challenge stigma.

So what can we do to protect ourselves online and use the Internet in a safe and beneficial way? The most important rule is to be mindful and aware of the composed nature of social media. Try to view those perfect yet posed and edited Instagram selfies as what they are and limit your usage of certain websites when they feel overwhelming or all-consuming. Be mindful of the fact that the content you see is often a façade and that underlying fragilities are easily concealed behind smoke and mirrors. You can block people or accounts, report inappropriate content, or tailor your feed on social media sites to filter particular users or groups. Ultimately, there is always the deactivate button and putting all social media on blackout, even for temporary periods, can be empowering. Recognize the warning signs, take back control of the mouse pad and press the shut down key. Try to protect yourself as much as you can, and reach out for appropriate support when necessary.


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Additional Reading:

Body Comparisons and Eating Disorders
Body Image in the Media
Self-Esteem and Eating Disorders
Weight-Related Bullying and Eating Disorders

About The Author:

This article was written by Claire Kearns. Claire is a journalism and creative writing graduate and freelance writer based in Surrey, England.

Written – 2017