Eating disorders are characterized by altered eating behavior that negatively impacts a person’s physical and mental health. Some recent evidence has suggested that the use of social media may partially influence the eating behaviors of children and adolescents, leading to an increased prevalence of eating disorders.
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders are serious and often fatal conditions associated with severe disturbances in eating behavior/pattern. In the majority of cases, eating disorders are developed due to overthinking body weight, body shape, and food. A drastic alteration in eating behavior often results in nutritional deficiencies, which in turn can affect the gastrointestinal system, cardiac system, bones, teeth, and oral cavity.
Eating disorders are particularly common among adolescents and young adults; however, the conditions can develop at any age. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
Anorexia nervosa develops when people dramatically limit the consumption of foods because of the fear of gaining weight. The condition may lead to severe health complications due to excessive loss of body weight. The major contributing factor is an inaccurate perception about body weight or shape.
Bulimia nervosa develops when people episodically eat a large amount of food and subsequently try to cut out the extra calories in an unhealthy way. Because of the guilt feeling of uncontrolled binge-eating, people often force vomit, exercise heavily, use laxatives, or stop eating to compensate for the episodes of overeating. People with bulimia nervosa may have normal body weight or be slightly overweight.
Binge-eating disorder develops when people regularly overeat but do not try to get rid of the extra calories like a person with bulimia nervosa would do. A new episode of binge-eating mostly occurs at least once a week. Because of abnormally high food intake, people often become overweight or obese.
Impact of social media on eating disorders
Dissatisfaction with body weight or shape is the primary contributing factor of altered eating behaviors among adolescents and young adults. Such conditions are particularly common among young girls. There is evidence highlighting a positive association between prolonged media exposure and the development of eating disorders.
The risk of developing eating disorders can be predicted by the photo-based social media activities of adolescents. There is evidence indicating that avoidance of posting photos on social media, photo investment, and photo manipulation are associated with a higher risk of eating disorders.
A recent study conducted on middle school students has raised the possibility that spending too much time on social media may increase the risk of eating disorders. The study specifically focuses on the use of four social media platforms: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Tumblr. The social media platforms that communicate through photos and videos, such as Instagram and Snapchat, are highly favored by adolescents.
Adolescents and young adults put too much focus on how they are perceived online. This makes them very conscious about body weight, body shape, calorie intake, and exercise. According to the study, these are the core psychological factors influencing distorted eating behavior.
The study has found that about 52% of girls and 45% of boys opt for skipping meals, heavy exercise, and other behaviors associated with eating disorders. Of all participants, about 75% of girls and 70% of boys have been found to have at least one social media account, with Instagram being the most common.
A significantly higher risk of eating disorders has been observed for both boys and girls with each type of social media account. A significantly higher susceptibility to develop eating disorder-related behaviors and over-thinking of body weight and shape has specifically been observed for girls with Snapchat and Tumblr accounts and boys with Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Excessive use of social media may be associated with higher thoughts and behaviors related to eating disorders. The risk may be higher for adolescents and young adults who spend more time on social media and have accounts on multiple platforms. However, there are other factors that could potentially alter the eating behaviors of adolescents, including the influence of friends and family and diet plans followed at home.
Social media may have only a little influence on some people. Thus, it is important to identify the most susceptible people who can be easily influenced by social media content specifically promoting the use of highly processed foods and unrealistic exercise regimens for weight loss and body shape maintenance.
The recommended minimum age for having a social media account is 13 years. Surprisingly, the influence of social media on eating behaviors has been observed among adolescents younger than 13 years.
Given the complexity of the situation, it is recommended that adolescents should be educated about the advantages and disadvantages of social media. This will help them make informed decisions. There is evidence suggesting that social media literacy reduces the risk of eating disorders among adolescents.
Certain programs such as Media Smart and Media Smart Online have been developed and implemented among school students to reduce the risk of eating behaviors. In preliminary studies, these programs have shown beneficial outcomes.
- Eating Disorders. 2018. Mayo Clinic. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/eating-disorders/symptoms-causes/syc-20353603
- Morris, A.M. (2003). The impact of the media on eating disorders in children and adolescents. Pediatrics & Child Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792687/
- Wilksch, S.M. (2019). The relationship between social media use and disordered eating in young adolescents. International Journal of Eating Disorders. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/eat.23198
- Lonergan, A.R. (2020). Protect me from my selfie: Examining the association between photo-based social media behaviors and self-reported eating disorders in adolescence. International Journal of Eating Disorders. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/eat.23256
- McLean, S.A. (2017). A pilot evaluation of a social media literacy intervention to reduce risk factors for eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/eat.22708
- Wilksch, S.M. (2016). Outcomes of three universal eating disorder risk reduction programs by participants with higher and lower baseline shape and weight concern. International Journal of Eating Disorders. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/eat.22642
- All Eating Disorder Content
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Last Updated: Mar 28, 2022
Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta
Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta is a science communicator who believes in spreading the power of science in every corner of the world. She has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree and a Master's of Science (M.Sc.) in biology and human physiology. Following her Master's degree, Sanchari went on to study a Ph.D. in human physiology. She has authored more than 10 original research articles, all of which have been published in world renowned international journals.
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