Social Media Linked to Rise in Eating Disorders

Award-winning actor Zendaya celebrates all body types. Supermodel Bella Hadid openly shares how she has dealt with anorexia and cautions her Instagram followers that “social media is not real.”

Despite their efforts to serve as role models, celebrities’ photos and videos on social media can trigger people who have negative body images, especially those with eating disorders.

That content – and social media itself – doesn’t cause eating disorders.

“Social media can be an empowering tool for connecting and community building,” says Lauren Smolar, vice president for mission and education at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

But, Smolar says, “It can also be the exact opposite and reinforce unhealthy messages about dieting and appearance.”

Nearly 29 million people in the U.S. will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, NEDA estimates. Most of those people – 95% – are between ages 12-25, an age group for which social media is a key part of daily life.

The problem has grown with increased social media use since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Calls, texts, and chats to the NEDA Helpline rose 58% from March 2020 to October 2021, Smolar says.

Eating disorders are serious medical conditions that can be life-threatening and are linked to suicide risk. People of all sizes, ages, racial and ethnic groups, and genders can have eating disorders. These conditions can be treated. If you or someone you know is dealing with a harmful relationship to food or body image, get help. You can start with your doctor or a therapist. Or call or text NEDA’s helpline at 800-931-2237.

‘Shame and Guilt’

Research links social media use to eating disorders including:

  • Anorexia nervosa: undereating and often an obsession with thinness. This condition can cause severe health problems and can be fatal.
  • Bulimia nervosa: eating large amounts of food in a short period of time and then trying to counter it in unhealthy ways like purging, diuretics, laxatives, and excessive fasting or exercise
  • Binge-eating disorder: binge eating without purging or other attempts to offset repeatedly eating large amounts of food.

The relationship between social media use and binge eating shows in a 2022 review of studies. “The more participants use social media, the more likely they are to have increased appetite or intention to eat, which can lead to binge eating,” says researcher Bo Ra Kim of the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Nursing.

Other unhealthy behaviors include compulsive workouts and so-called cheat meals. “Although cheat meals can be packaged as a reward for me for exercising and dieting hard, losing control during that period can have negative health consequences in many cases,” Kim says.

Research also shows that seeing idealized (and unrealistic) Instagram images can negatively affect how young women feel about their bodies. Efforts to promote body positivity and spot unrealistic content may help counter that.

Unhealthy Comparisons

Some people do whatever it takes to look like people they perceive as looking perfect, regardless of whether it is a realistic or healthy goal.

“There’s a lot of hero worship,” says Nancy Mramor Kajuth, PhD, a Pittsburgh psychologist and author of Get Reel: Produce Your Own Life. “It generates a false reality to think you need to look that way. You’re so strongly identified with someone on social media that you stop separating yourself from the fact that they’re just people who are paid to look good. That’s their job.”

People also overlook the fact that in real life, celebrities don’t even look like their visual images without all the makeup, styling, and photo editing, Kajuth says. The idea of what’s “perfect” or what “looks good” is also subjective and varies among different groups. Still, it can be harder to resist social media imagery if you’re vulnerable to an eating disorder or body image issues.

These influences aren’t new, Kajuth points out. Before social media, the unhealthy gaze came from magazines, TV, movies, and billboards. But social media can bombard you with images and messages that can multiply and follow you around, thanks to algorithms and shared posts. The comparisons can go on and on.

Growing Use of Social Media

Facebook and Instagram, both owned by Meta, are making it easier for people to change their settings to opt out of seeing certain ads or content. For instance, they can set their settings so that if they type in certain words on Instagram, such as “skinny,” they will automatically be taken to self-help content. TikTok has a page devoted to awareness of eating disorders.

However, the Social Media Victims Law Center says that technology companies haven’t done enough to protect users. The Center has filed 14 eating disorder cases against social media companies.

NEDA has asked Congress to allocate at least $1 million for the National Institute of Mental Health to research the effects of social media on teenagers and children. NEDA has also called on lawmakers to push technology companies to release their social media research, to hold them more accountable, and to stop them from micro-targeting young people with ads and content.

“We continue to ask social media companies to evaluate their policies and to continue to do better to make their sites safer for users,” Smolar says.

A Social Media Checkup and Other Ways to Help

Experts and researchers encourage health care providers to assess the social media activities of their patients. They also offer these tips for individuals and families to help reduce the impact of social media on mental health:

  • Get help if you think you may have an eating disorder or body image problems, or if your social media use affects how you feel about yourself. Consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Kim says. “Mindfulness programs are highly recommended treatments.”
  • Take stock of the message and images that you view and how they make you feel, Smolar says. Make sure that the content is healthy for you.
  • Don’t dwell on numbers related to measuring food or weight. This includes social media posts that include specific weights or body-part measurements, body mass index (BMI) levels, and calorie counts.
  • Spend more face-to-face time with family and friends who are positive, supportive, and healthy for you.
  • If you’re the parent of a teen, be aware of the spaces they are in – not only in real life, but also on social media.
  • Take a timeout from social media. “It loses some of its power when you are not attached to it,” Kajuth says.