Does Social Media Fuel Eating Disorders?

Does Social Media Fuel Eating Disorders?

By Shawn Dwyer 06/02/14

While pro-ana and pro-mia sites have always been around, social media has escalated eating disorder behaviors to a global scale.

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With the proliferation of social media outlets in recent years, eating disorder experts have been sounding the alarm that young women and men are becoming more susceptible to disorders like bulimia and anorexia because of the reinforcement they receive on sites like Facebook or Instagram.

A complex mixture of physical, psychological, and societal factors, eating disorders afflict some 30 million Americans at some point in their life, according to statistics from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). But the rise of social media has exacerbated eating disorder behaviors through sharing so-called “thinspirational” messages like “Pretty girls don’t eat,” reinforcing obsessions through competition and comparisons, and gaining easy approval for behaviors.

"We live in a culture where eating disorders thrive because of the messages we're exposed to," said Claire Mysko, head of youth outreach for the NEDA. "Social media heightens that exposure."

"Before you would do (the behavior) in isolation or with a classmate," Mysko continued. "Now you can log on and see what thousands of people are doing. It changes the game."

While there has been no direct correlation between social media and any increases in the number of patients suffering from eating disorders, hospitalizations have risen 24 percent in the last 10 years, according to a study conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality.

"An eating disorder rarely occurs in a vacuum. A lot of times there's anxiety and depression," said therapist Jessica Kilbride. "Pro-ana sites can trigger anorexic behavior but it will never be the sole cause of a full-blown eating disorder."

Because of this awareness, there has been more attempts by Instagram and Twitter to censor content by banning certain hashtags, while treatment centers and other advocates have pushed positive messages in hopes of steering people away from self-destructive behaviors.