eNewsletter - June 2019

Behavioral Health Partners


Social Media and Eating Disorders: A Complicated Combination

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), nearly a half million adolescents and young adults in the U.S. have anorexia nervosa, bulimia and related eating disorders. Additionally, the 2018 Social Media Update by Pew Research Center says social media influence is more prevalent than ever with 88 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds using some form of social media. For young people living with an eating disorder, the use of social media can complicate treatment and recovery.

Why social media is problematic. While we understand the vast magnitude of social media’s reach for teens and young adults, let’s discuss its potential impact on the lives of those who live with eating disorders.

  • Undue influence. Social media enables those in recovery, and those not yet diagnosed or receiving treatment, to connect faster across a wider network, exposing them to the influence of others. Not only do they see pictures that may glorify certain body types, they also have easy access to amateur advice on health and fitness. It can be difficult to sift through so much information and identify fact from fiction. According to NEDA, a survey of 10,500 women in 13 countries found that beauty and appearance anxiety continue to be critical global issues and the media is a key factor driving their concerns.
  • Triggering information. The endless images and information our society is exposed to can act as triggers for people with eating disorders, or interrupt the recovery process. NEDA reports that one study of teen girls found social media users were significantly more likely than non-social media users to have internalized a drive for thinness and to engage in body surveillance.  
  • Body dissatisfaction. Young people who use social media are more likely to develop negative body images and eating disorders according to a study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh- School of Medicine. Unrealistic social images and posts can be very misleading, especially for people suffering from an eating disorder. This type of exposure may contribute to body dissatisfaction or negative thoughts about his or her own body. 
  • Virtual participation. Online food experiences via social media enable a vicarious connection with food experiences, but without consequences. Watching things like cooking videos or eating contests can create a sense of satisfaction that leads to increased food avoidance.
  • Exposure to body shaming and bullying. Social media, with its perceived veil of anonymity, acts as a platform for body shaming and bullying, putting participants at risk.

How providers can help. Content depicting everything from unrealistic celebrity bodies to food porn and misleading or unprofessional dietary advice can trigger thoughts and feelings that derail progress made by patients and their behavioral health providers.

For patients in recovery, it’s important to monitor social media experiences. Providers can help create a social media plan that works for the patient and limits exposure to negative of harmful influences. Encouraging mindfulness can also be helpful as it minimizes distractions, negative thoughts and shape- and weight-related worries these patients often experience.

Additionally, NEDA recommends asking the following questions about social media posts before sharing them to encourage body-positive thought processes:

  1. Does this contain triggering elements such as numbers, descriptions of body extremes or particular unliked body elements?
  2. Does this contain story aspects that are easily compared to someone else?
  3. Does this shame very large or very small people?
  4. Does this specifically affirm all who struggle with body image issues?
  5. Is this only about my own story?
  6. Will this benefit all those who read or see it?

Finding more resources. For patients who would benefit from connecting with a certified therapist who specializes in eating disorder treatment and recovery, please call the Linden Oaks Help Line 24 hours a day at 630-305-5027 for assistance from one of our experienced assessment professionals.