Contributor: Courtney Howard, B.A., Director of Operations & Business Development at Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope.
Many factors go into the development of eating disorders. Social media exposure can certainly play a role, but it is not going to be the sole cause of an individual’s disordered eating.
A combination of biological, psychological, and environmental components or triggers all contribute to a child’s mental health.
Social media can be harmful when used for the wrong reasons, so it is important to be aware of potential triggers and encourage healthy communication between you and your child.
Social Media & Body Image
Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are arguably the most image-driven social media platforms currently available. Children exposed to a high volume of this image-driven social media can be at risk for the development of distorted body image and disordered eating.
A 2011 study  from the University of Haifa examined 248 young women from the ages of 12 to 19 and found that more exposure to social media contributed to higher rates of eating disorders and related concerns. Specifically, the more time these young women spent on Facebook, the more likely they were to struggle with “…bulimia, anorexia, physical dissatisfaction, negative physical self-image, negative approach to eating and more of an urge to be on a weight-loss diet.”
This study also found that parental involvement in social media exposure made an impact. Adolescents whose parents were unaware of their social media activity were more likely to develop negative self-image and disordered eating patterns than those whose parents were more involved in their online time.
These findings hardly mean that Facebook and lack of parental supervision inevitably lead to the development of disordered eating. As mentioned, there are many factors that contribute to eating disorders and all mental health disorders. However, it is important to note the potential impact of social media on youth.
When Cyberbullying Plays a Role
Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that often takes place online, typically on social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and online forums. In many cases, this bullying can be directed at an individual’s body or other elements of his or her appearance.
The effects of bullying on children have been studied deeply within the past couple decades. A 2000 study  of adolescents in Finland examined the prevalence of various mental health disorders among bullies, victims, and bully-victims.
This Finnish study found that eating disorders were common among females involved in any of the roles, while eating disorders in males were specifically linked to the bully-victim role. Though this focused on bullying in a school setting and not necessarily online, these findings indicate a relationship between bullying and the development of disordered eating. It can be inferred that cyberbullying has a similar effect on the mental health of bullies, victims, and bully-victims.
Pro-Eating Disorder Communities
One form of social media that can be particularly harmful is pro-eating disorder websites. These communities range greatly, but many support disordered eating and can contribute to an individual’s distorted thoughts surrounding food and their bodies.
Though most of these sites claim to not promote eating disorders or encourage related behaviors, that is exactly what they are doing. Whether this be through thinspiration photos and memes or a forum that explicitly gives tips on how to trick your dietitian into thinking you have gained weight, the result is the same.
Many people struggling with severe eating disorders go to these sites because they crave a sense of community. Eating disorders are extremely secretive and isolative in nature, so the support, validation, and anonymity provided by these sites become a dangerously enticing combination.
In an effort to combat pro-eating disorder websites, Eating Disorder Hope recently launched the Pro-Recovery Movement. This movement encourages individuals to embrace recovery, share their favorite coping skills, learn how to escape the trap of perfectionism, and live life free from their eating disorders.
Social media does not cause eating disorders in children, but it does not always help.
Spending time on Facebook and Instagram can be a way for teenagers to connect with friends and catch up on the latest news in their communities. However, research shows that too much social media can take a toll on an individual’s body image and mental health, particularly when cyberbullying comes into play. Pro-eating disorder communities can be especially harmful and triggering.
Encouraging your children to use social media in positive ways and having a general awareness of their online activity can help minimize the negative effect that social media has on them. Keep the conversation open and let them know that they can come to you if they are triggered by something they see online.
Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!
What are your thoughts on the relationship between social media and eating disorders in youth? What advice would you give to parents concerned about their children’s online activity?
About the Author: Courtney Howard is the Director of Operations & Business Development at Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. from San Diego State University, holds a paralegal certificate in Family Law, and is a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate. After obtaining her certification as a life coach, Courtney launched Lionheart Eating Disorder Recovery Coaching in 2015 and continues to be a passionate advocate for awareness and recovery.
: University of Haifa. (2011, February 7). Facebook users more prone to developing eating disorders, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 30, 2016 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110207091754.htm
: Riittakerttu, K., et al. (2000). Bullying at school—an indicator of adolescents at risk for mental disorders. ScienceDirect Journal of Adolescence.
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.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 9, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com