Mental Health: For People Experiencing Eating Disorders and Body Image Issues, Social Media Can Either Help or Harm

Social media can be a positive force; it allows people to make friends from all over the world, keep in touch with loved ones, share and receive ideas or advice, and amplifies important messages and social movements. 

But there’s also a darker side to what is seen on social media. It can also be flooded with edited images, idealistic influencers, and potentially toxic messages rooted in diet culture and fatphobia. The number of youth online exposed to these messages is also at an all-time high. Nine out of 10 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 use social media, and most of them are active on several platforms.

Many people also look to online influencers and fitness gurus for health and wellness tips when in reality, these individuals and accounts often lack any credentials to make diagnoses or distribute advice.

“These influencers who have no degree or certification are essentially spreading diet culture and putting people at risk for eating disorders, as well as other negative health effects,” Leah Moyers, who is in recovery from an eating disorder, said.

Content like a filtered photo or dancing video can negatively impact how one perceives themselves. Research has shown negative body image can lead to depression, social anxiety, self-consciousness, and dangerous eating disorders. For those who already struggle with eating disorders, social media platforms can be a triggering place, mainly due to images and content that can promote unhealthy thinking and behaviors.

TikTok is one of the newest trending social media platforms. The video-sharing app allows users to create and post short videos, often of themselves dancing alone or with friends. Although many of the videos may intend to share positive messages to its 689 million users, some feel the visual nature of the platform has only perpetuated society’s focus on body shape and size, especially for the young and vulnerable generation.

“The clips and videos on the surface are intended to be fun,” Kristin Szostak, resident director of The Renfrew Center in Center City, said. “However, the people in the videos are glamorized and overly sexualized to the point where it’s sending a subtle secondary message of drawing attention to their bodies and the way they look. That then can manifest, subconsciously, as an unrealistic expectation for the person watching. Then people try to mimic what they see in these videos to the point that it becomes harmful to them.” 

Despite social media’s shift to more video-based content, the still imagery of photos can affect people’s self-esteem. The popularity of filters on websites such as Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat is on the rise. Using filters has been proven in multiple studies to have a negative effect on mental health. With the click of a button, people can airbrush, morph, and alter a photograph to represent reality online.

“What’s being perceived as a beauty standard now is a natural look that isn’t even natural,” said Szostak.

Although filters on social media sites are probably not going anywhere, a 2020 study showed that posting edited photos can cause an increase in anxiety and urges to restrict food intake among college students. 

“Social media also tries to tap into these images of thin people having unending happiness and a perfect life,” Linda Schmitz, a practicing psychologist from Dresher, Pennsylvania, said. “People are trying to fill a hole inside of themselves by altering their external image. They often end up more unhappy and disillusioned.”

In today’s hyperconnected world, social media influencers often set the standard for what is accepted and considered beautiful or desirable. Some promote health or wellness products that may be dangerous or easy to misuse. The subtle messages in these sponsored advertisements can also support the idea that health is weight-centric or encourage disordered behaviors or thought patterns, all of which contributes to toxic diet culture.

Whether an influencer promoting a fat-burning tea, a thread being reposted about how much weight a celebrity gained, or comments on a photo or video that criticize someone’s appearance, social media has become a factor in perpetuating the beliefs and ideals associated with diet culture.

“Diet culture on social media presents itself as ‘healthy’ and ‘empowering,’ but produces an impossible bar to attain and creates more body anxiety and poor self-image,” Schmitz said. “It often portrays a false narrative depicting beautiful people pawning products that they don’t even use. It preys on people’s insecurities and keeps a cycle of endless striving for perfection that is impossible and defeating.” 

Moyers said because of misinformation circulating on social media, it is critical to fact-check any information or health advice you receive online and be sure it’s coming from a reputable source. 

“People can instill fear in others by demonizing certain foods or lifestyles, insisting that one is better than another,” Moyers said. “Things like eating salt or sugar are shamed online, when really, what’s way more dangerous is being afraid to eat those things.”

Despite diet culture having become more common online, many social media users and influencers are also becoming active participants in the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement, which strives to spread the message that weight is not an indication of health. Many people also use the #NoFilter hashtag to encourage the posting of unedited photos. Some companies, like Aerie and Dove, have even stopped using Photoshop in ads to help rethink and change beauty standards.

“Sponsors and companies are definitely starting to have more normal-looking humans as models, so I think that’s really changing in a positive way,” Schmitz said. “There’s more representation. It’s no longer just this cookie-cutter, sickly image of beauty.”

Another way people are rethinking how to better utilize the power of social media is by using it as it was originally meant: to stay in touch with others. Hannah Hampton, a former patient at Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center in Philadelphia, said that without social media, she wouldn’t have been able to connect with an entire community of people who share similar struggles.

“I have been able to make so many Instagram friends that I met solely because we both are in recovery and want to discuss positivity and coping,” Hampton said. “These people have helped me so much because they genuinely get what I am feeling to the core and can resonate with my thoughts and give advice that really benefits me.”

In addition to meeting new friends online, Hampton is also to keep in touch with those she met in treatment to share encouraging words and motivation during their recovery journeys.

“These people are located all over,” Hampton said. “So without social media, none of these relationships would be possible.”

Theo*, another former patient at Monte Nido, also noted how the online recovery community can be a beneficial resource for those seeking nonprofessional help. 

“Though not without its issues, the online eating disorder recovery community, as a whole, provides community, support, education, and resources surrounding recovery,” Theo said, “all of which are very accessible. This is especially helpful for people who want recovery but for whom professional support is not an option.”

Like any online community, however, it’s best to proceed with caution. Eating disorder recovery communities online tend to be unmonitored, and participants should use caution when viewing posts and engaging with others in these spaces. It’s common for individuals to compare themselves and their symptoms to one another. Or inadvertently make unhealthy or triggering suggestions. 

“When eating disorder sufferers can hear, in detail, day after day, about how much a friend who also has an eating disorder is relapsing, it can and does inspire relapses in others,” Theo said. “And having that reference point of exactly how badly their friend is doing makes it that much easier to go harder on themself, lest they risk not being the sickest anymore.”

Social media websites don’t provide a way to screen for posts that could be triggering, so it lies in the hands of users to manage what online content is consumed. 

“There needs to be a higher standard set for all social media platforms,” Szostak said. “If they can develop algorithms that track what we want to see and cater ads and pop-ups to meet that, then I feel it should go the other way: There should be some sort of algorithm where the user can trigger the starting points and then the social media platform realizes, ‘OK don’t populate with this information.’”

The two recovering individuals said that one of the most beneficial things they did to avoid seeing triggering content online was cleaning up their social media feeds. This feed-detox involved removing accounts that posed a threat to their recovery or negatively impacted their body image. 

“Immediately unfollow the accounts that are suggestive of resorting to old ways and triggering ED [eating disorder] behaviors,” Hampton said. “I have absolutely taken the time to fill my social feeds with more accounts that allow for positivity rather than triggering content. Instead of exposing myself to triggering content, I unfollow those and fill my feed with more accounts that align with my beliefs.”

Until social media platforms implement tools to better protect users against suggestive or body-shaming content, it’s up to the user to tailor content suggestions, unfollow toxic accounts, and determine how to use social media in a way that helps rather than harms their mental health.

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*Theo asked to remain anonymous. Philadelphia Neighborhoods’ policy is to not use unnamed sources except on occasions that could jeopardize someone’s personal safety.

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