How Social Media Can Trigger Eating Disorders in Teens

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People, especially teenagers and young adults, are spending more and more time online every day. And it doesn’t just relate to school or work stuff. Thanks to the wide presence of affordable residential internet services such as Spectrum internet plans, the vast majority of American households have access to reliable internet. 


However, this also means more people can access social media than ever before, especially in the United States. While the social media phenomenon itself has been the subject of a lot of intense debate, this blog will focus on a particularly disturbing aspect that is only now becoming a talking point in the mainstream. Read on to find out how social media use could be triggering a variety of eating disorders among younger, more impressionable users. 

Getting The Facts Straight 


There are more smartphones and internet subscribers in the US than ever before. For example, in 2015, only about 41% of children aged 12 and above had their own smartphone. In 2019, nearly 70% of American children have a personal smartphone. Nearly 69% of teens and 56% of tweens consume online video content. Over 70% of American teens visit at least one social media platform every day. 


Instagram remains the most popular in roughly 72% of teens. 43% of teens using social platforms experience some form of anxiety or negative emotion over not getting enough likes, reactions, or shares. They often end up deleting the post altogether. if it does not get the desired response. 


These figures are all part of a 2019 report by Common Sense Media, and they all define the magnitude of the problem teens and young adults might be facing, such as the rise in eating disorders among younger social media users since 2010. Here are 5 possible ways this could be happening:

Unattainable and Unrealistic Body Standards 


If you use social media, you probably follow a bunch of people purely for “aesthetic”. In other words, you follow them because they look impossibly good. The operative word here is “impossible”. From young female celebrities like Kylie Jenner to over-the-top male personas like Dan Bilzerian, the lifestyles and more importantly, the bodies, are always on display. Perfect curves, chiseled abs, tiny waists, impeccably done nails, muscular arms, and so on. 


Obviously, if you’re bombarded by these perfect images of very photogenic people, anyone would begin to feel a bit insecure about their own body. At the very least, they would wish they could somehow achieve the “perfect” body, and therein lies the problem. There is no such thing as a perfect body. Even the celebs you follow often post heavily Photoshopped or airbrushed pictures. 


Despite increasing efforts to promote body positivity and helping people feel secure in their skins, the fact remains that younger users can absorb the body standards they are presented with. That means they are far more likely to develop, say anorexia, to lose weight and get that “skinny” look.  

Online Interactions Overshadowing In-Person Interactions


Especially among young females, eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia or even binge-eating have a lot of stigmas associated with them. This often prompts the victims to hide their disorders and indulge them in private to avoid public ridicule. There are also feelings of guilt, shame, and loneliness that often accompany eating disorders. This aversion to in-person interactions, created by eating disorders often triggered by social media, is easier to maintain thanks to social media as well. Being consumed by shame and worry about their appearance and eating disorders, young teens often give up in-person interactions completely. 


Instead, they shift their focus to the convenient, simple, and usually shallow interactions you see online on social media. In a way, it offers them a place to hide. Whether sharing memes or carefully shot photos of themselves, people often try to hide their eating problems behind a hip and woke image they cultivate on social media. Of course, in a kinder and more understanding world, these young social media users should be getting help. Instead, they end up compounding the problem by hiding it out of a sense of shame and insecurity, often making the disorder worse.  

Social Media Heightens Feelings of Exclusion or Ostracization

Social media offers a great way to check up on your friends and family without actually having to go meet them. Sure, it’s fun to see how Howard from high school is doing, and if Anna-May from college ended up going to Greece over the holidays. But there’s also a darker side to this “transparency” you see on social media. Depending on privacy preferences, most users share images and videos of themselves to as large an audience as possible. There’s not much wrong with this if you’re an outgoing extrovert with a lot of people to hang out with. But most teens with eating disorders already feel excluded and isolated, especially in social settings like school. It impacts their ability to make friends and adds to their growing body insecurity.

Now consider a teen with an eating disorder finding out all of their friends went to the skating rink without them. This is a very basic but also very painful experience when you’re already struggling. It adds to a person’s existing feelings about being a social pariah, convincing them that nobody wants to hang out with them. At best, this will lead them to further isolate themselves, and give up the remaining social connections they have. At worst, it can trigger many other disorders, such as depression, social anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.  

Lack of Controls to Comprehensively Deal With Cyberbullying 


Humans, for all our technological accomplishments, can be extremely cruel to each other, especially to those who may look, speak, or even just dress differently. Social media emerged as a potentially fun way to engage with friends and like-minded people online. But over the years, it was invaded by what we call the “internet troll”, which in many cases is just a euphemism for a cyberbully. 


Bullies can often face consequences in person, such as beating up a smaller teen at school and getting warned or even expelled by the school administration. Or, the bullied teen could have more belligerent family members that could show up to confront the bully. So there is a small chance of the bully having to face some consequences for their actions. 


On social media, even this small chance of equity does not exist. On the internet, you’re just a social media profile, free to voice your opinions and comment on what others post. There’s very little danger of someone you have offended showing up at your doorstep to beat you up. This has emboldened many social media users to post particularly cruel, uncalled for, and insensitive comments on what people post. Cyberbullying is one of the leading causes of teen suicide, not to mention a host of other problems like depression, anxiety, stress, and even social isolation. For a person that already has a visible eating disorder, most trolls or bullies can be particularly cruel. This can often have a serious impact on the person being bullied online for their appearance. Of course, most people will likely tell you to simply develop thick skin. But the fact remains, bullying in any form is intolerable. The absence of appropriate controls on social media makes people who are already vulnerable, such as those with severe eating disorders, easy targets for bullying without impunity. 

The Emergence of Misinformed Pro-Eating Disorder Communities


False news is a word that has gained a lot of momentum since the Trump Era. Of course, nobody is denying that there can be multiple perspectives on any issue. But the fact that social media actually offers a platform for spreading fake news, whether in good faith or with malintent, is quite disturbing. A good example is the emergence of pro-eating disorder social communities, or Pro-Ed as they like to call themselves. Using a mix of dubious information, downright lies, and creative graphics, pro-ed pages often encourage people to embrace their eating disorders instead of seeking help. This is not just irresponsible, but blatantly misleading. 


Eating disorders can be extremely harmful to a teen as their life progresses. It can leave them with serious social, mental, and even physical limitations, and if they don’t seek help, the problems only continue to get worse. Pro-ed pages, whether through well-meaning intentions or simple ignorance, propagate many eating disorders as lifestyle choices. That’s like calling the Spectrum number to order a pizza. They are two entirely different things, with entirely different outcomes.


 A lifestyle choice is something you consciously make to live a life that suits you. An eating disorder is often the result of trauma, abuse, and constant bullying. Equating it to a lifestyle choice doesn’t help those suffering from it. In fact, it only makes it more difficult for them to reach out for help. Ultimately, this “inclusivity” stems from false knowledge, and is just as dangerous as the disorder itself.    



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