Is Social Media responsible for the rise in Eating Disorder?

Jason Sheirs
Author / Jason Shiers / Dip. Psych MBACP

a woman with anorexia

A person’s body image is defined as one’s perception, thoughts, and emotions relating to their own body. It is influenced by a persons’ body representation, concerning, societal norms as communicated by friends, family, and also media.

There is an assumption in western countries that being thin through weight management equals well-being and health, this focus has filtered through from other more traditional media (magazines, billboards, and tv) and is now being represented on social media platforms which have started to become informal sources of health education. (The pursuit of wellness: Social media, body image, and eating disorders) The term “social media” refers to every website and online mobile app with user-generated content.

In a country of 53 million active social media users as of January 2021 (UK: social media usage 2019.), there is also an estimated 1.37million people between the ages of 11 and 69 that suffer from eating disorders in the UK (How Many People Have an Eating Disorder in the UK?),

That means there is a penetration rate of 77.9% of the UK population who have access to and use social media daily, and while there is no single cause of body dissatisfaction or eating disorders, being unable to control the message we receive does indeed contribute towards those feelings.

The dangerous role of “influencers” promoting diets

A ‘Social Media Influencer’ has a large following on their respective platform and is integral in shaping the thoughts and buying habits of their followers through their own opinions. They are also able to persuade their followers through shared ideals, to follow their advice on the latest diets, thereby shaping attitudes and behaviours within their audience.
Since there is currently no credibility standard to assess claims, these influencers may harm the public health of their followers.

Brands have started favouring ‘Social Media Influencer’ marketing to promote their products, often sharing opinion based articles across platforms, and since being a ‘Nutritionist’ is not a protected title in the UK, and requires no training or qualifications, these opinion based articles can often provide contradictory advice and confusion when compared to facts based messages from public health organisations. (Analysing Credibility of UK Social Media Influencers’ Weight-Management Blogs: A Pilot Study) The British Dietetic Association found that 58% of the adults surveyed would trust a personal trainer or fitness instructor to give them nutrition advice, increasing to 75% for the 18–24 age group, unfortunately, 41% of the same age group said that they would trust a ‘healthy eating blogger’, regardless of qualification. (Survey finds that almost 60% of people trust nutrition advice from underqualified professionals)

The Influence Of Influencers

As a by-product of social media being a digital community, many people feel a greater connection to people they don’t know on social media platforms in a way that can be problematic.

Where there may be an expectation that athletes, celebrities, or models be extremely fit and thin, it is easy to accept that social media influencers are just average people like you or i – so when they are fit, toned and thin, it can cause some negative feelings towards our own appearance, reducing self-esteem and causing body dissatisfaction.

Unfortunately, filters and photoshop are generally the reason models, fitness enthusiasts, actors, and, more recently, influencers look a certain way, and they are paid through endorsements to look and behave a certain way, so essentially there look is their job. (Social Media Can Increase Risk Of Eating Disorders And Negative Body Image)

The need to fit in, and to look like other influencers/models. Are eating disorders just a “teen” problem?

The concern now is the effects of social media on the body image perceptions and as a consequence, the mental health of our adolescents. Weight management content is often flawed and not always based on fact (think fad diets) and may have consequences (however unintended) of sending adolescents and young adults into a cycle of weight issues (re-current gains & losses) chronic stress, exercise avoidance, or over-exercise, and depression. These consequences may plague those adolescents well into adulthood and influence aspects of their lives such as relationships, employment, and social standing. (The impact of the media on eating disorders in children and adolescents)

If you are suffering from an eating disorder, you should seek professional help. And additionally, instead of closing off all social media access, flood your feeds with positive pages, that promote recovery and block or unfollow negative and triggering content. In this digital era, it’s also essential for healthcare professionals to stay informed about effective (marketing strategies for doctors), ensuring that those in need can easily find the right support and resources.