Social media and disordered eating: It's complicated

Recovering from an eating disorder is a grueling, one-step-forward-two-steps-back process - and social media is making it that much harder for many young people.

Social media doesn’t “cause” eating disorders. But its relentless imagery of perfect bodies - and the promise of a perfect life to match - can fuel disordered thinking about bodies and food. It can also create dangerous roadblocks on the journey to health and wellbeing.

At the same time, say young people in recovery, social media can also be a positive space, helping them find a supportive community. 

It makes you feel worse about yourself ...

"I went through my entire teenage life assuming that everyone hated their bodies and obsessed over them and obsessed over eating and dieting," explains Patrick Boyle. 

Now ten years into his recovery from a complex eating disorder and a spokesperson for the Butterfly Foundation, Boyle told ABC’s Hack program that scrolling through his Instagram feed made everything harder. 

insta plate

"Instagram really was the thing for me that sent everything downhill even further. Because in times when you wouldn't be thinking about your body or about diet, suddenly, you open your phone, you're mindlessly scrolling through all of this content.

"For someone with an eating disorder, you always have that chugging along in the back of your brain. But suddenly, if you have this device in your pocket that you can open and waste time on and use to release dopamine, it makes you feel worse about yourself. It's even harder to escape those thought patterns [about disordered eating]."

"Instagram really was the thing for me that sent everything downhill even further. Because in times when you wouldn't be thinking about your body or about diet, suddenly, you open your phone, you're mindlessly scrolling through all of this content.

Instagram is hardly the only social media platform that can pose risks for kids with eating disorders - Boyle instances TikTok ads featuring a “fleet of muscle guys doing ab workouts” - so pointing fingers at particular tech companies is not the solution.

Social media as ecosystem

Instead, say psychologists and cyber experts, we need to look at the social media ecosystem as a holistic “world” that embeds and reinforces a range of damaging messages for vulnerable young people.

“What the research is saying,” says Dr. Sarah Maguire, “is that the longer you spend on social media, where you are comparing yourself with peers, or comparing yourself to celebrities, it can have a negative impact on your body image and your feelings about your body.”

The speed at which imagery is delivered only exacerbates the risk.

The director of Sydney University’s InsideOut Institute for eating disorders, Maguire cautions that social media content around diet, body or exercise “is a known trigger for a person with an eating disorder.

“If you're having that targeted content delivered to you in increasing volume, you're just talking about an increase in the triggers."

The speed at which imagery is delivered only exacerbates the risk. Body image recovery coach Mia Findlay points out that with TikTok, for example, “it’s just constantly feeding you more content as you school through.

“And the brain can’t process that as quickly as we’d like it to in terms of being able to look at something and analyse it and say, is this face ‘tuned’? Is this photoshopped?”

It's complicated

That said, all experts agree that disordered eating is a highly complex issue in which many, many variables play a part - from genetic endowment to family culture. For many young people, social media is indisputably one of those variables. 

Yet social media is also the water in which today’s young people swim. “Taking it away” - if such a thing were even possible - is no solution.

What may be is greater awareness of the risks, earlier commitment to supporting healthy online limits and encouraging blame-free conversation about what our children are experiencing on their preferred platforms.



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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, Social Media, eating disorders

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