How Does Social Media Affect Disordered Eating?

By Victoria Kim 08/14/19

A new study suggests that social media platforms may be having the opposite effect on disordered eating than is expected.

man on social media

Social media is often blamed for a number of societal ills—depression, anxiety, bullying, isolation, and negative body image.

A new essay published on The Conversation explored social media’s relationship with disordered eating—e.g. anorexia or bulimia nervosa. The authors cite recent findings that found that overall, “fewer young people are being diagnosed with eating disorders.”

The authors, who were involved in the research, analyzed a primary care database covering about 7% of England’s population, focusing on data of more than one million children and young people who went to the doctor between 2004 and 2014.

On The Decline

“Rates decreased most significantly for bulimia nervosa, less so for eating disorders not otherwise specified, and remained stable for anorexia nervosa,” the authors wrote.

The results were surprising, and suggest that social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook may be having the opposite effect than is expected. The authors suggest that “the body positivity and range of body shapes and sizes seen on social platforms is helping young people accept their own selves.”

This idea goes against existing theories about social media’s detrimental impact on body image. There is no shortage of social media “influencers” with curated feeds of picture perfect selfies.

“The mechanism where this might lead to eating concerns and disordered eating seems sensible,” the authors said. “But our study doesn’t currently support that.”

Continued research on the matter is starting to pick away at these assumptions.

Shared Experiences

While social media platforms like Instagram have been found to unite communities bonded by the shared experience of disordered eating and working toward objectively unhealthy body goals, they also have united people who are seeking recovery.

So, instead of frequenting hashtags like #thinspiration, #proana and #thighgap, Instagram users on the road to eating disorder recovery may find their community through #edrecovery, #edsurvivor and #beatana. (“Ana” refers to anorexia nervosa.)

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr