These days, it’s convenient and easy to blame social media for many of society’s pitfalls – from the rise of the sometimes dangerous challenge trend to the state of our mental wellness. When thinking about the connection between eating disorders and social media, it’s important to understand right off the bat: Social media does not cause eating disorders. Eating disorders are biological illnesses that are often inherited and among the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to substance abuse disorders.
While we can’t point our fingers at social media for eating disorders, evidence has shown a correlation between prolonged social media exposure and the development of disordered eating. This means individuals who are diagnosed or vulnerable to an eating disorder may be triggered by social media content.
What can we do to make social media a safer space for those who are at risk for disordered eating or struggle with eating disorders? There are three important steps we can take: understand how social media works, learn how to co-exist with it, and lead by example.
1. Break Down Algorithms
Ever wonder why you get served certain ads or content online? It’s all about the algorithms – this is how content is sorted, prioritized, and served to social media users. For individuals who are battling an eating disorder or on the road to recovery, algorithms can seize on their insecurities. From videos, reels, and posts of weight loss tricks to fitness routines to clothing ads to healthy recipes and cooking videos – these algorithms present targeted content that’s created to intrigue and compel action. They inundate social media streams and can be extremely dangerous for individuals struggling with or recovering from eating disorders.
Algorithms contribute to the hold eating disorders have on individuals by serving content that fuels body comparisons without disclaimers that inform viewers that what they’re seeing is a fake reality. Social media can trick the mind into thinking someone else’s life is better, but in reality, the viewer is comparing their behind-the-scenes life with a content creator’s final, and highly edited, reel. You can’t compare the two; it’s simply not apples to apples. The next time you look at an image on social media, remember to apply a disclaimer.
2. Live with Social Media
We live in a world with social media – it’s not going anywhere and neither are we. That’s why it’s crucial to learn how to co-exist with social media. In some cases, that means taking a break from it. I recommend that individuals who are recovering or struggling with an eating disorder stay off social media. If that is too difficult, unfollow or block any negative influences. Another good option is to get a professional’s opinion or input from another trusted adult on what positive resources and creators to follow on social media.
For parents and guardians, it’s essential to be aware and willing to set boundaries with social media – and most importantly, ask questions. Monitor your children’s screen time and keep track of sites they are visiting (there are apps that can help with this). Also, follow your kids on their social media accounts and see what they are up to. Don’t be afraid to set strict boundaries. You may even need to take away the phone or tablet.
3. Be a Digital Role Model
If you’re one of the 72 percent of Americans who have a social media account, it probably adds something to your life. As long as you are considering the source of curated content and using social media in moderation, it is all good. But don’t stop there, lead by example and be a good digital role model for your family and others. Keep having conversations about what is real versus fake and don’t be afraid to intervene if you have to.
As a counselor, I always tell parents to get involved in their children’s social media activity and stay educated about what’s out there. Teach your children how to recognize what is fake and what is real and explain that not everything they see while scrolling on social media is an accurate depiction of real life. Identify positive influences and block any negative influences.
For better or worse, social media is here to stay. But for those with eating disorders, it promotes a fake reality that can be harmful and even dangerous. By being aware that everything is not as it appears online and proceeding with caution, we can make social media a safer space for everyone.