While it’s great to use social media as motivation, support, or a tool to get healthier, there are also serious risks. Some social media content and influencers promote unhealthy “hacks,” tips, tricks, attitudes, and behaviors pertaining to eating, exercise, and the ideal body.
Exposure to this content, particularly among impressionable children, teens, and young adults, can put users at risk of developing issues with poor body image, disordered eating patterns, and clinically diagnosable eating disorders.
Your body image is the way you think and feel about your body, including the way you look, the numbers on the scale or clothing tags, and the size or shape of individual parts of your body.
Body image shouldn’t be confused with self-esteem, which refers to your feelings about and perception of yourself as a whole person. However, poor body image can contribute to lower self-esteem, feelings of depression and anxiety, and disordered eating patterns.
Social media content promoting unrealistic ideal bodies and unhealthy behaviors intended to achieve these ideals can affect a person’s body image. Cyberbullying comments that criticize a person’s physical appearance, too, can distort a person’s perception of their own body.
Poor body image can contribute to lower self-esteem, but so can other aspects of social media use in broader contexts. For example, comparing one’s life to other users’ social media posts can contribute to feeling that one’s life isn’t as exciting, that their social relationships are fewer or less fulfilling, or that their material possessions are not as “good” as those of others. Cyberbullying, too, can harm a person’s self-esteem, even if these cruel messages aren’t about a person’s physical appearance.
Social media content that promotes disordered eating patterns and unhealthy attitudes toward diet and exercise often proclaims itself “fitspiration” or “thinspiration” (or “thinspo”).
The media has long been blamed as a culprit behind the prevalence of body image issues and eating disorders, even before the emergence of the social media channels that are popular today. However, social media is now a major area of concern when it comes to affecting body image among young people. Some have even accused social media of glamorizing eating disorders, in large part through the posting of—often highly edited— photos that are intended to represent the ideal body.
According to a 2019 BBC article (which cautioned that causation hadn’t yet been established), “using social media does appear to be correlated with body image concerns” based on a systematic review of published research papers. In particular, comparing one’s own body to those appearing in photos shared on social media sites like Instagram was correlated with having negative thoughts and feelings about your own body, the researchers concluded.
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2021 reported a link between a person comparing their own physical appearance to the appearance of people they follow on social media sites and experiencing body dissatisfaction and a “drive for thinness.”
Your perception of your body may also drive behaviors, both healthy and unhealthy. This is the case when people, especially teens and young adults, develop eating disorders from social media.
Eating disorders are a group of mental health disorders that are characterized by serious, problematic thoughts and behaviors concerning food and eating, as well as body image and exercise. A person suffering from an eating disorder may starve themselves or eat uncontrollably, with or without purging behaviors.
Because these mental health disorders affect individuals’ behavior regarding eating, they can have serious effects on physical health, as well. Potential physical complications of eating disorders include malnourishment and damage to the heart and the endocrine, neurological, and gastrointestinal systems. The National Eating Disorders Association reported that the mortality rate for eating disorders is the highest among all psychiatric illnesses.
Clinically diagnosable eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
Weight loss that results in the person having a “significantly low” body weight is the main hallmark of anorexia nervosa. Most people with anorexia restrict energy (calorie) intake. A person with anorexia may also engage in binge-eating or purging behaviors. People who are struggling with anorexia can develop potentially deadly complications, like electrolyte imbalances and cardiac arrest, without warning.
A person of any weight—underweight, normal weight, or overweight—can develop bulimia nervosa, which is characterized by a cycle of uncontrollable binge-eating followed by purging behaviors. A person who suffers from bulimia may purge by vomiting, using laxatives or diuretics, or engaging in excessive, compulsive exercise beyond what is healthy or reasonable. Often, the binge-eating is done in secret and leads to feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust that prompt the subsequent purging behaviors. Binging and purging behaviors are hard on the digestive system and can contribute to chemical and electrolyte imbalances that impair the function of major organs, like the heart, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
Recurrent episodes of binge-eating characterize binge-eating disorder. Binge-eating disorder is more than just occasionally over-indulging. Typically, binge-eating typically takes place alone and in secret, and the person eats very fast, even if they aren’t hungry. The eating is uncontrollable and may continue even after the person is full to the point of experiencing physical discomfort. Often, feelings of guilt and disgust accompany a binge, yet the behavior recurs at least once a week—on average—for at least three months.
Purging behaviors are not, in and of themselves, part of binge-eating disorder; however, bulimia and binge-eating disorder may occur together.
Some experts recognize a condition called orthorexia nervosa, although orthorexia is not a distinct condition in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with eating healthily.
A person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors regarding food don’t have to reach the level of a clinically diagnosable eating disorder to cause significant harm. Behaviors (and the thoughts and feelings behind them) that don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder may be referred to as “disordered eating.” Disordered eating patterns include skipping meals, “cleanses,” fad diets, and misusing supplements or taking diet pills not prescribed by the individual’s physician.
Disordered eating patterns may develop into a full-blown eating disorder if they progress—but even if they don’t, these negative thoughts and behaviors can still affect an individual’s quality of life.
An article published in the Eating and Weight Disorders journal in 2017 found that 49% of study participants who followed health food accounts on the social media site Instagram showed a tendency toward orthorexia nervosa.
The internal research studies leaked by Facebook whistleblower and former data scientist Frances Haugen reported findings that included the impact of using the social media site Instagram on body image and eating disorders. According to the surveys, 32% of teenage girls reported Instagram making them feel worse about their bodies, and 17% of teenage girls reported worsening eating disorders related to Instagram use, according to NPR. Further, 13.5% of teen girls from the U.K. reported worsening suicidal thoughts in relation to Instagram use.
How do you know if your child is suffering from body image issues or eating disorders related to social media use? If you notice symptoms of eating disorders or disordered eating patterns more generally, it’s important to take action regardless of the cause. However, if you observe excessive or problematic social media use or a pattern of social media use that correlates to the concerning behaviors, there’s a good chance that social media exposure could be a contributing factor.
The first thing parents should do if they suspect any sort of eating disorder or disordered eating pattern is intervene to start getting help for their children.
In an emergency situation, like signs of severe symptoms of an eating disorder or suspected self-harm or suicidal ideation, please seek immediate assistance by calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Talking to your child, gently and non-judgmentally, about their eating habits and body image is often a good place to start when dealing with an eating disorder. Consult a doctor, like your child’s pediatrician, to help your child start getting the treatment they need for the physical and mental aspects of these complex disorders.
Eating disorders are serious situations, and the harm they inflict upon an individual’s physical and mental health can be extreme. Long-term and even life-threatening complications can arise. Even in the absence of ongoing mental and physical health issues, professional medical treatment is necessary for recovering from an eating disorder. The therapeutic interventions needed to improve the patient’s physical and mental health can pose a considerable financial burden.
Increasingly, the families of children and teens harmed by social media exposure and addiction are seeking to hold social media companies accountable by taking legal action. Pursuing a social media eating disorder lawsuit may allow your family to recover financial compensation and press for more transparency and accountability on the part of these companies—potentially preventing other children and families from having to go through an ordeal like yours.
It costs you nothing to talk to an experienced social media attorney with in-depth knowledge of this complex and evolving area of law, and the consultation is free and confidential. If you decide to move forward with a social media lawsuit claim, our experienced attorneys offer no-win, no-fee legal representation. For a free, confidential consultation, call (866) 778-5500.