Eating Disorders, Instagram, and Teens: What to Look For?

Woman looking at Instagram on her phone

Eating disorders are a severe mental health disorder and those that struggle with this disorder often hide their behaviors and symptoms from loved ones. People that struggle with an eating disorder can be of any weight or size [1].

For teens, using social media is like an extension of themselves. They use Instagram in conversation as if they were speaking with each other.

They also use photo or image filters to alter the way they look and post these images on Instagram so they can be compared and compare themselves to others.

As teens are talking in groups, they are sharing videos, taking photos and sharing their lives on their social media platforms.

Information is instantly shared among their friends just like they would in a group discussion with each other. For many adolescents, social media is the primary way that they communicate.

Remember Life Before Filters

Often though, individuals on Instagram will make remarks or share photos that touch on weight, body size, body shape, and eating behaviors.

Woman Checking Social Media ImagesThese comments can be a cause for concern as the commentaries can include negative statements about themselves or someone else’s weight loss, dieting, etc. and therefore helping to lead to some type of disordered eating.

Many pre-teens and teenagers will comment on their photo, assess their body and comment to each other on the way they look. They will share with each other pictures with and without photo filters and point out how ‘different’ they appear.

Instagram can be a dangerous social media platform for the development of an eating disorder, due to ‘picture-perfect’ images of individuals, peers, and celebrities with glamorous lifestyles and figures [2].

Kids and teens enjoy using Instagram because it allows a person to use effects and captions to edit photos and share the pictures across multiple social media platforms.

This feature can change the way a person looks creating a false sense of self and mimicking a more glamorous persona. This can also be positive in that it does allow for a teen to have some creativity on social media with their appearance and look of photos [3].

Instagram can bring both negative and positive comments to the user. Photos are public by default and can also contain location data. Being aware of privacy settings and how to limit a user’s audience is essential when monitoring your teen’s social media platform account.

The Red X

Other things to be aware of are ‘beauty pageants’ where members and users judge photos and the losers have red ‘X’s placed across their faces.

Other teens feel pressured to create a persona changing themselves into an idealized image on Instagram.

Some will go so far as to create “Finstagram” (think Fake + Instagram=Finstagram) where they portray themselves as perfect rather than be who they are [3].

Finstagrams are also used where some teens feel they are unable to be themselves and use their fake account to post photos of their ‘real’ self with a few trusted peers.

Factors for Eating Disorders

Research shows that 95% of all American teenagers aged 12-17 years are on online, and 80% of those online teens are users of social media sites [4]. Many teens log on daily to social network sites which is where much of their social activity occurs.

Social Media Cloud TextIt is important as parents to know how to help their child become a good digital citizen as well as be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of eating disorders.

Bullying is another factor that is now a concern with social media. Peer pressure, bullying behaviors, exclusion, and other mean-spirited behaviors have moved from face-to-face school contact to 24-hour online torment for youths and adolescents.

It can be difficult for teenagers to escape ridicule from their peers. A sense of “no relief” can lead to unhealthy disordered patterns of behaviors to help cope, such as eating disorders.

Many teens, if unsure of how to identify or manage overwhelming emotions will turn to food to exercise some sort of control. This “food control” tends to be the ‘simplest’ solution for many teens as it is the one aspect of their life that they do have control.

They may begin posting pictures of themselves in before or after photos at the gym or eating. They may start having hashtag lines about dieting or weight loss. You may even notice that your child is following other users that are posting about weight loss or unhealthy eating or lifestyle choices.

Knowing What To Look For

First, understand that your teen can alter their photos to show various images of themselves in order to appear different. Many teenagers are not used to seeing their image without a filter.

All smartphones come with some type of photo filter, and so do most social media apps. Often they also judge every part of their body and face. Talk with your child about genuine beauty and that enhancing their image and body with photo filters is not a true standard of beauty for a person.

Second, monitor your child’s social media activity, and who they are following. Are they and other users posting about unhealthy dieting behaviors, or commenting on the ‘thin-ideal’ body image, or obsess about exercise habits?

This activity can encourage eating disorder behaviors and become a normalized process in their thinking if seen enough within their social media news feeds.

Most issues that occur with your adolescent on social media most often happens between a friend or in a group and not in the public setting of Instagram or news feeds [4].

Third, talk with your teen about healthy and unhealthy behaviors. It is imperative during the adolescent years to have these conversations sooner rather than later.

Educate them on what an eating disorder is and what can happen. Have them learn about healthy body image, healthy eating, and internal beauty.

Talking with your teenager about proper and appropriate Internet and social media use is a good step in preventing an eating disorder.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Instagram Help Center. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2018, from
[2] News, F. (2017, May 28). How Instagram fame led to my eating disorder. Retrieved January 18, 2018, from
[3] What should parents know about Instagram? (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2018, from
[4] Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Smith, A., Purcell, K., Zickuhr, K., & Rainie, L. (2011, November 08). Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites. Retrieved January 18, 2018, from
[5] Anderson, M. (2016, January 07). Parents, Teens and Digital Monitoring. Retrieved January 18, 2018, from

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on March 20, 2018.

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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.