Mental Health

Disordered Eating Is Everywhere On Social Media. It’s Hurting Kids

Sites like Instagram set unrealistic beauty standards — and sometimes push content that promotes eating disorders.

Originally Published: 

We know social media is bad for our brains — it can increase anxiety, stress, depression, loneliness, and body image issues, particularly in young people. But as if that weren’t enough, a new review study finds that its influence is so strong that social media use is even a risk factor for young people developing eating disorders.

Approximately 30 million Americans struggle with eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Organization, and scientists have long suspected that social media use is contributing to that large number.

To explore the connection between social media use and eating disorders, researchers from the University College London pored over 50 studies published between January 2016 and July 2021, from 17 different countries, about trends in how 10- to 24-year-olds’ body image and eating patterns are affected by social media.

Their analysis suggests that social media sets teens up to compare themselves and their looks to others. Appearance-focused platforms — like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube — have the power to quickly instill trends of self-objectification and set beauty standards like being thin and fit.

“The outcome is a population of young people at risk of corroded body image, gaping discrepancies between their actual and ‘polished’ online selves, and an increased likelihood of engaging in compensatory disordered eating behaviors, as our review has shown,” Alexandra Dane, a student researcher on the study, said in a press release.

These platforms sometimes go so far as to actively promote pro-eating disorder content, by pushing trends such as ‘fitspiration’ and ‘thinspiration’. Three of the studies included in the review noted that exposure to ‘fitspiration’ videos results in negative mood and body image dissatisfaction. Although some participants felt inspired to eat healthy and exercise, others felt “extreme pressure” to do so, which was followed by disordered eating. Videos hashtagged ‘thinspiration’ promoted “starvation as a lifestyle choice,” according to the paper, with some even sharing tips on how to hide eating disorders.

These are just some of the social media trends revolving around dieting. “For example, ‘What I eat in a day’ videos on TikTok don’t necessarily promote a realistic expectation of a ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ day’s eating,” says Allison Chase, Ph.D., regional clinical director at the Eating Recovery Center in the Texas region, who was not involved in the new study. And “weight loss ads and diet product testimonials, with their “before” and “after” photos, can lead to unrealistic and unhealthy body image issues and expectations.”

What Parents Can Do

First things first, question whether your child is truly ready for social media. Delaying social media use is the biggest tool a parent can implement. Max Stossel, founder of Social Awakening, an organization promoting healthy use of social media, suggests that children shouldn’t have access to social media before eighth grade, because data shows that 10- to 14-year-old girls are hit hardest by its negative effects. But the decision can also depend on your child’s maturity levels. “When they are ready will depend on things like their ability to read social cues, their impulse control, and their vulnerability to criticism or rejection,” according to the Child Mind Institute.

If your child is on social media, talk with them about how it makes them feel and why, and have honest conversations about what social media actually is. “Younger individuals don’t yet have fully developed brains to fully understand and interpret that social media only shows a small and often distorted piece of a full picture,” says Chase, so it’s a parent’s responsibility to explain that to them.

You can make use of time limits — there’s all sorts of apps specialized in this, such as Bark — and set parental control limits on the content they can access or be exposed to on social media. In Instagram, in the Filters and Moderation section, you can highlight words or hashtags you don’t want to appear in your child’s feed, such as #thinspiration, by listing them in the section ‘Do not show post containing.’ You can do something similar on TikTok by using the “video keyword filters” option, and the app has also rolled out ‘Family pairing’ features for parents and children to share what they’ve been up to on the app.

Developing body appreciation can be a helpful tool for fighting body image problems and disordered eating spurred by social media use, the new research suggests. Start by modeling appreciation for your own body — saying positive things about your body and openly accepting your imperfections. Don’t forget your non-physical attributes too, like kindness and patience. You can also focus on all the things your body allows you to do — dance, bake a cake, sing karaoke, climb a tree — rather than what it looks like.

If you have any concerns about your child’s eating, body image, or mood, it’s important to immediately intervene, Chase says. This means talking to your child about it in a non-judgmental way, supporting them however you can, and seeking expert assistance as soon as possible. “The most important thing to do, in support of a loved one struggling with an eating disorder, is to be open and honest about your concern for the person suffering,” Chase says.

This article was originally published on