Our kids are developing eating disorders at higher rates than ever before, and many are asking whether social media is causing the spike.
One of the things that makes people think social media may be causing eating disorders is because it creates a powerful community around weight loss and body-based goals. Even when models are literally fake, people still see them as relatable.
For example, Miquela (@liliquela) is an artificial intelligence ‘influencer’ who has 2.8 million Instagram followers. She looks like every other fashion blogger, right down to her “useful advice” and “can I just tell you guys” relatable tone of voice. But she’s entirely fake. She literally does not exist, yet still influences millions of people.
Social media is dangerous because of its believability. Our brains believe (often subconsciously) that the posts are from “real people.” This belief makes people on social media more likely to influence how we feel about ourselves and others. On social media, everyone seems as real and approachable as your next door neighbor.
Social media posts often:
- Use filters to enhance body shape, skin tone, eye and lip size, and more
- Are boosted by an algorithm that naturally favors thin, conventionally attractive people
- Show only one side of a “real” person. Just like models, the person behind the account becomes invisible, and their body becomes an object for consumption.
- Create a “compare and despair” situation in which consumers of the media believe they are not as good as others.
The unattainable beauty goals previously modeled by professionals are now perceived as more achievable because they’re being modeled by “real people” on social media. Even if kids know that social media is “fake,” they still subconsciously believe they can and should look like their favorite influencers.
Many people suspect that social media is likely contributing to increased rates of eating disorders. And this is most likely partly due to the highly visual nature of social media. Also, social media influencers regularly give disordered diet and fitness advice.
Social media is full of:
- “I did it and so can you!” messages that promote ways of eating and exercising that meets eating disorder criteria
- Paid promotions for diet aids that promise to burn fat, reduce calories, and achieve a thinner body
- Non-scientific claims of “health” and “wellness” that can be dangerous
- A powerful pull to jump on the bandwagon and join a community even if it is disordered
Social media is an environment that encourages and even provides a guidebook for developing eating disorders.
Eating disorders are more than vanity, and they are not a choice. But social media can make it easy to begin using disordered behaviors. For those people who are vulnerable to developing an eating disorder, social media can be an easy place to begin.
Who is more susceptible to developing an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are biopsychosocial in nature. This means they combine biological, psychological, and social factors. Thus, social media alone can’t be causing eating disorders, but it can definitely contribute to them. A person becomes more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder when they have these elements in their lives:
- Biological: there are certain hereditable traits that can make a person more likely to develop an eating disorder.
- Psychological: a person who has other psychological conditions like anxiety and depression is more likely to develop an eating disorder.
- Social: a person growing up in Western society, which favors very thin bodies for women and muscular, lean bodies for men, is more likely to develop an eating disorder
Eating disorders and the pitcher plant
To tell this story, I’m going to use an analogy. The pitcher plant is a carnivorous plant that has flowers shaped like pitchers. The flowers emit a tasty scent that is incredibly appealing to its prey. The bee is attracted to the pitcher flower. It cannot resist the tasty smell, flies over, and lands on the edge. It circles the top of the flower, sucking up delicious sweetness.
But, without noticing it, the bee starts slipping down the tube of the plant. It’s enjoying the food so much that it barely notices that it’s going deeper and deeper. It believes that its wings will save it when the time comes to make the choice to fly away. But the plant is sticky and slippery, and the insect slips further and further down the tube until it becomes stuck in a gooey mess at the bottom.
The bee just wants the sweetness of the pitcher flower. But it’s all too easy to go deeper without even realizing it.
Social media can be a sort of pitcher plant for eating disorders. If a person is vulnerable to eating disorders, they are attracted to social media posts that promote them. They think they are just sniffing along the rim. But then they may find themselves fully in an eating disorder without even realizing it.
Like the pitcher plant, eating disorders are very compelling for certain people. If we have the right combination of genetic, psychological and environmental factors, eating disorders are easy to fall into. This is why social media may be contributing to higher rates of eating disorders by making them accessible to more people.
Social media can make eating disorders more attractive
Just like bees are attracted to the sweet smell and taste on the rim of the pitcher plant, some people are attracted to eating disorder behaviors. They can find endless posts to feed their curiosity. Social media provides inspiration, how-to, encouragement, and community. These can be irresistible for some.
Social media influencers post photos of themselves and tie their appearance to their behavior. So a very thin, pretty woman will say she is so happy to be vegan and gluten-free. Her next post may show her lifting weights or doing a yoga pose. The message is that she is thin and beautiful because of how she eats and exercises. Her followers believe that if they do what she does, they will look like her.
This applies equally to men and women. A muscular, lean man will say he uses protein powder, counts macros, and lifts weights every day. He’ll post shirtless photos of himself at the beach, in the weight room, and with other attractive people. The message is that he is strong and attractive because of how he eats and exercises. His followers will believe that if they do what he does, they will look like him.
FACT: body size, shape, and composition is largely outside of individual control. There are bodies that are genetically predisposed to be thin, lean, curvy, muscular, etc. Just because a social media influencer shares their diet and exercise routine does not mean that their followers will look like them if they do the same.
The deeper you dive into social media, the easier it is to find support for eating disorders. Influencers share details about how they distract themselves from hunger. They show their food diary, often falling well below caloric needs. Many share steroid and supplement advice.
While lots of influencers skate across the surface of eating disorders, others are actively pro-eating disorder. These influencers actually share tips and tricks for hiding eating disorder behaviors.
NOTE: Instagram has tried to protect its users from pro-eating disorder information. It has a warning system that allows followers to report dangerous behavior. But of course many pro-eating disorder posts slip through the cracks.
One of the things that makes social media so compelling is the encouragement that people can find. Posts that share weight loss and physical transformations receive a lot of attention, likes, comments, and shares. They may be the single most popular type of social media post.
But people don’t even have to share a photo of themselves to find encouragement. They can see other people’s posts and follow comment threads filled with positive affirmation for weight loss. Even if they aren’t directly told that they should lose weight, the social media environment encourages weight loss in thousands of ways.
The deeper a person goes into dieting, weight loss, and body modification on social media, the less able they are to see they are trapped. Just like the bee in the pitcher plant, they can get so deep in the sticky sweetness that they feel safe even when they are in fact in danger.
Social media communities arise when lots of people are going through the same experience. And one of the most powerful types of community on social media is diet. You can find a community of people around almost any type of eating behavior, including:
These limited ways of eating aren’t always disordered, but they tend to be very attractive to someone who is vulnerable to an eating disorder. Social communities that promote a limited and rigid approach to eating flourish because people are seeking belonging and approval. In our increasingly fractured society, finding belonging in a rigid eating and exercise program can seem like the only way to feel good.
Understanding the allure of social media
When we think of social media as a very attractive flower, we can understand why our kids are attracted to it. And people who are susceptible to eating disorders are more attracted to dangerous eating disorder influencers.
Since eating disorders have a large social component, social media can be a major driver. Social media provides inspiration, how-to, encouragement, and community that can be overwhelmingly compelling for someone who is vulnerable to eating disorders.
How parents can protect kids on social media
Our kids are the “test generation” of social media. They are the first teens to go through adolescence with 24×7 access to each other and the whole world via social media. And we really don’t understand enough about social media to protect our kids completely from its risks.
It’s very hard to keep kids entirely off social media, so the best most of us can do is limit access and exposure. We can also actively counteract social media messages that may encourage eating disorders.
Here are 5 things parents can do:
- Put time limits on social media, especially during sleep and school hours.
- Tell your child that you can and will access their phone to review their social media activity at any time. In addition to reviewing their posts and looking for warning signs, parents should also check kids’ feeds to see the type of posts they’re seeing.
- Talk to your child about the dangers of social media. Help them understand that as sweet as it is, it’s important to set healthy limits to avoid falling in too deep.
- Talk about body image and eating disorders with your child. Help them understand that bodies are largely out of our control. Most people who look lean and fit on social media are genetically built that way. And very few people can achieve the same, even if they follow the same food and exercise programs.
- Help them build healthy, offline relationships that provide belonging and community. They need to feel as if they belong in real life, free from filters and algorithms.
It’s time for us to get educated about the damage social media can do to our children who are at risk of or already have an eating disorder.
Because, just like the Pitcher Plant, our kids may stumble into an eating disorder by mistake, but, once stuck, it is a very difficult thing to get out of.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.