February 22 to 28 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and it aims to put a spotlight on a problem that now impacts one in seven people at some point in their lifetime. This year especially it is import to consider the role that social media can player in the rise of eating disorders and negative body image during the pandemic.
“Research indicates a correlation between time spent on social media and increased risk for eating disorders exists; however, it is hard to conclude that social media directly causes eating disorders,” said Allison Forti, Ph.D., LCMHC, NCC, associate teaching professor and associate director of the Department of Counseling Online Programs at Wake Forest University.
“The intersection of social media and eating disorders is complicated,” Forti added. “On the one hand, it serves as an outlet to mask, cultivate, or inspire eating disorders.”
One example of this is in how social media platforms promote wellness or healthy eating, for some, are also the precipice for orthorexia nervosa, an obsession with healthy eating that can lead to emotional distress and physical problems, suggested Forti.
“Studies have found a link between greater social media use and negative body issues, particularly among young people,” added Dr. Mai-Ly Nguyen Steers, assistant professor for the Online Masters of Nursing at Duquesne University. “These individuals may be comparing their bodies to those they see on social media and feeling like they don’t live up to that image.”
The Influence Of Influencers
An added problem about social media is that many people feel a greater to connection to people they really don’t know on social media in a way that isn’t true of other media. Where we may expect athletes or models on TV to be extremely fit, it is easy to accept that influencers on social media are just average people – so when they are fit and tone, it can make some users have negative feelings about their own appearance.
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“So many aspects can contribute to reduced self-esteem and body dissatisfaction, including comparisons with peers, celebrities, and social media influencers, most of who post carefully posed, selected, and filtered photos,” warned Jennifer Henry, LPC, CCATP, director of the counseling center at Maryville University. “The aspect of using filters and Photoshop to alter images in order to project an ‘idealized’ image.”
This idealized image can also lend itself to online bullying and even body shaming of others.
“Increasing awareness of how we look and specifically, how to obtain the ‘best’ angle, pose, lighting, filter for social media,” added Henry. “It’s not unusual to see really young girls posing for pictures doing the ‘skinny arm’ pose or the ‘duck face,’ instead of just goofing around and having fun. We are missing out on actual experiences by focusing on how to get the best picture of it for our social media pages.”
At the same time it is important to realize that these models, fitness enthusiasts, actors and influencers all have made it their job to look a certain way.
“They likely have nutritionists, cooks, trainers, stylists, and photographers to create what they post online,” suggested Henry. “And even then, those photos are altered with filters and Photoshop.”
The Positive Side Of Social Media
While it could be easy to suggest simply tuning out of social media to address these issues, that may not be the perfect solution. For one in this time of reduced social contact, social media remains a way for people to stay in touch. Likewise, social media can still be a tool to help address eating disorders and negative body image.
“Social media can be a tool to share resources, messages, and images that are healing or affirming,” said Forti. “The problem is the differentiation between risk inducing social media and helpful social media is not always obvious. Sometimes it is not even obvious to the account holders. Curated accounts filled with images created in perfect lighting, angles, and distortions serve to do one thing – promote the message the account holder thinks they are selling.
“Yet, what social media users ‘attempt’ to sell and ‘how’ it is consumed from a psychological point of view are two different things,” added Forti. “Social media accounts promoting the message, ‘strong not skinny’ may be selling body positivity but consumers may be buying messages that set new aspirational norms. For someone at risk for an eating disorder, the voices in their head may shift away from a fear of weight gain, but still aspire toward body modification and restriction – to obtain their version of a strong body – that is fueled in shame and self-loathing.”
Social media can also provide a greater emphasis on health, wellness, and nutrition to counter some of the negative effects.
“Fitness trackers and nutrition apps encourage healthy eating, and often include messages around balanced diets instead of a focus on weight loss,” suggested Dr. Anita Thomas, executive vice president and provost at St. Catherine University.
“Social media has also gained traction in promoting diverse body types, shapes, and sizes. There are more websites that promote self-acceptance,” added Thomas.
“Social media can also be useful in helping to find social support for people with eating disorders,” noted Nguyen Steers. “For instance, people in eating disorders Facebook or Reddit groups may be able to offer support to others who are going through the same struggles.”
Maryville University’s Jennifer Henry also suggested that there are tips users on social media can employ to combat the potential negative body image.
*Unfollow any individuals or pages that show unrealistic body standards, encourage dieting or unhealthy behaviors, shame others, or generally leave you feeling worse about yourself.
*Intentionally seek out and follow pages that celebrate body positivity and diversity in numerous forms including age, skin color, ability-level, body size, etc.
*Follow people who spread joy and acceptance. Choose to fill your newsfeed with those who lift each other up.
*Take social media breaks from time to time. This allows you time to center yourself, remembering what is important to you without the constant deluge of social media.
*Make it a practice to celebrate non-physical aspects of yourself and others. Instead of commenting on how good your friend looks in their most recent Facebook post, comment on how happy you are that they got to go on that well-earned vacation or on how artistic the photo is. Avoid weight-related comments (even ones that you intend as compliments) about yourself or others.
*Individuals who are suffering from an eating disorder should always seek out professional help. However, they can create a positive social media feed that supplements and encourages recovery by blocking /unfollowing all negative and triggering content and flooding their feeds with healthy content. Many individuals who are pursuing recovery from an eating disorder have found support and community through intentional use of social media. Connections made with others who are also pursuing eating disorder recovery can be incredibly encouraging to those who are struggling. Many have made it their mission to share their own personal recovery story as a way to let others know that recovery is possible and that there is hope.
And of course the most important thing is to be open with others including friends and family, and with everything if social media is becoming “anti-social” in anyway, it is time to tune out.