Does Social Media Cause Teen Eating Disorders?

Does Social Media Cause Teen Eating Disorders?

Social media has become a significant part of modern friendships and relationships for both teenagers and adults. The average time spent on social media sites has undeniably increased over the past decade as social media platforms continue to trend upwards in popularity. With social media readily available with any smartphone or computer, the adverse effects of social media have risen in prevalence.

Social media is often associated with a shifting perception of body image, resulting in harmful perceptions of ideal body weight. The next question to consider is this: how many teens suffer from eating disorders or develop dangerous weight control practices due to social media? The effect of social media is difficult to measure, and we cannot directly attribute eating disorders on a broad or universal scale with social media. However, the perceptions of body image resulting from social media can contribute psychologically to the occurrence of an eating disorder.  

A note before diving into details about social media’s connection with teen eating disorders: this article is not intending to condemn social media for teens and adolescents. In today’s world, social media is a tool that keeps us connected with our friends and family, as well as up to date on important news. However, the effects of social media can extend beyond these beneficial purposes to cause mental health concerns.    

What is an Eating Disorder?

The American Psychiatric Association classifies eating disorders as “behavioral conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions.” Eating disorders are, simply put, mental health disorders. An eating disorder can result from other preexisting mental health conditions or severe anxiety and stress. Several biological or genetic factors can also influence the onset of an eating disorder.

What Are The Most Common Eating Disorders?

Anorexia nervosa is one of the most common eating disorders and is probably the most well-known. The John Hopkins School of Medicine defines anorexia as “a form of self-starvation” resulting in a severely underweight physique. Individuals with anorexia often limit the food they eat out of fear of gaining weight and may have a mental fixation or preoccupation with food or weight similar to OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

Another common eating disorder is Bulimia Nervosa, a condition characterized by John Hopkins Medicine as “repetitive cycles of binge eating alternating with self-induced vomiting or starvation.” Bulimia can result in similar outcomes to anorexia. Individuals between the ages of 12 and 25 are the most likely to experience an eating disorder. Both eating disorders are much more likely to affect women than men.

The Negative Effects of Social Media on Self-Perception

Social media and other forms of online content can negatively impact a teenager’s self-perception and body image. Practitioners usually use social media platforms for sharing the best parts of our lives, which can often project an image of perfection or general well-being. Media, more generally, has had an increasing influence over modern standards of beauty and fitness. Pictures of model appearance or perfect well-being provided through social media can lead to feelings of inadequacy or dissatisfaction with how we look or feel.

Social media allows teenagers and other individuals who are easily influenced by online media to set unrealistic expectations for their appearance, weight, and health. The social media that causes these unrealistic expectations may take many forms and include anything from an advertisement for a gym to an Instagram filter. 

Almost all social media platforms offer a way to remove imperfections, edit photos and videos, or improve the presentation of our lives. Essentially, social media is in many ways providing users a chance to compare themselves with others, which can result in harmful actions caused by feelings of comparative inadequacy.

The Connection Between Social Media and Eating Disorders

Dissatisfaction with personal image, including weight, fitness, and general appearance, is often attributed to unhealthy eating behaviors. This connection is particularly applicable for teenage girls between the ages of 12 and 19, who may often feel they are overweight or should otherwise lose weight. This feeling becoming a fixation or obsession with weight and thinness can contribute to an eating disorder. However, there are likely very few eating disorders that are single-handedly resulting from the diet and fitness mentality caused by online media’s unrealistic beauty standards.  

Does Social Media Always Have a Negative Impact?

Not necessarily. Social media has positive potential for sharing information or stories about dieting, body image, and health. In fact, social media is likely the most accessible platform for reaching out to others to tell these stories and get information. Unfortunately, not all social media is reliable, and users should formally research any topic they are interested in to help decide what messages and advice are not misinformation.

What Treatment Options Are Available For Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders directly connect with mental health, which means therapy sessions are often effective treatment options. The thoughts and feelings that lead someone to develop an eating disorder are a challenge to overcome. A licensed therapist can help identify, break down, and manage these feelings to make them conquerable. The most common form of therapy for eating disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy.

There are a few medications for treating depression that a doctor may prescribe for treating an eating disorder. There are very few medications explicitly used for treating eating disorders, and similar to therapy, the medication targets feelings of anxiety, depression, or stress. Medication and antidepressants cannot singlehandedly regulate or correct an eating disorder, which means other forms of treatment are almost always necessary. 

For severe eating disorders, hospital stays or residential teen treatment treatment centers may be necessary. These treatment options are significantly more intensive and target returning the body to manageable nutrition levels. If you or someone you know needs assistance with confronting an eating disorder, click here.