Alicia Bell, Assistant Psychologist at TIC+, explores the relationship between disordered eating and social media, and the impact it may have on young people’s eating behaviours in her article for Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2022.
Within recent years there has been a notable rise in the number of young people demonstrating disordered eating behaviours and a rise in those diagnosed with an eating disorder. There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of social networking sites along with a huge rise in the amount of users. Although social networking sites allow young people and adults to remain in close contact with family members and friends, and to keep up to date with the lives of celebrities, there have been concerns that the promotion on these platforms of body imaging apps could cause distress for individuals who have or who are vulnerable to disordered eating. I, therefore, found it important to consider if there is an association between social media and disordered eating behaviours, particularly in young people, and began researching this last summer.
Since 2010, there have been a number of free to use social media platforms developed where images and videos can both be shared and commented on, such as Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and, most recently, TikTok. Developments in technology and a reduction in the cost of smartphone and data have also meant that more of us, including young people (of whom 99% of 16-24 year olds own a smartphone as of 2021) (O’Dea 2021a; O’Dea 2021b), now have the ability to carry around the internet and have 24/7 access to a variety of social media sites, whereas disposable incomes in the early noughties wouldn’t have allowed for this. But what is it about social media that gets us hooked? On numerous occasions, I’ve been sitting on the bus when a phone pings and we all check to see if it’s us who have received a new comment to our latest post on Instagram or if someone has replied to a Tweet. It has been found that the chemical in the brain that makes us feel good and motivates us to repeat a desired behaviour, Dopamine, is released when we have a successful social interaction (Haynes, ND) such as when we receive a ‘like’, a ‘retweet’ or a positive comment on a post and this encourages us to continue posting our thoughts and photos, and makes us want to stay online. To receive these positive interactions and, therefore, the hits of Dopamine, people sometimes use filters and photoshopping techniques to make themselves look more conventionally desirable – such as smoothing their skin, enhancing the size of their eyes and making their figure thinner (Tolertino, 2019; Soussi, 2021). Of course, the ability to have photo’s professionally photoshopped is not new. Celebrities have been having professionals doctor their images on adverts, billboards and in magazines for many years. However, the concern is now that, not only is there an increased exposure to these images, but the general public now have the ability to edit images themselves, with apps such as FaceTune and ReTouch Me.
This increase in frequency of doctored images and the increased use of social media sites allows people to constantly compare themselves with unrealistic and unachievable goals. It is this comparison that has shown to lead to feelings of pressure to gain an idealised body (Krug, 2020; Rounds and Stutts, 2021). It was also found, in research by Saunders and Eaton (2018), that young people who favoured Snapchat and Instagram the most (where images and videos are the most prominent content) reported a negative experience based on upward comparison – where an individual compares themselves with someone who they consider superior to themselves – which was presented through both increased monitoring of body shape and body dissatisfaction. Conclusions of the research did therefore find that there was an association between social media usage and disordered eating behaviours in western society.
However, social media is not all bad. There is, in fact, evidence to suggest that social media platforms can actually help people to reduce disordered eating behaviours, as they enable the building of networks of family and friends, which, in turn, increases both social and emotional support (Walker et al, 2015). Additionally, social media platforms enable communities of people experiencing disordered eating to connect with each other, allowing them to express like-minded thoughts and feelings with people who truly understand, and are having, similar experiences. Rodgers et al (2015b) even found that members of these communities felt more positive and were happy to have a place where they felt they belonged, with 82% of those asked, feeling supported by the community. As well as building up communities of support, social media platforms also allow videos and posts that promote body positivity to be shared freely, such as the Dove Beauty and Self-esteem campaigns, reminding people of how images can be edited to show idealized bodies.
The take away from this is that not all social media is bad and should be avoided. Clearly there are key benefits to utilising social media platforms: to stay connected with friends, family and to keep up to date with social affairs. What I think we should acknowledge, however, is that social networking sites can foster communities that pose both positive and negative influences, particularly in regards to disordered eating behaviours. We should also remember, and ensure that young people are aware, that content posted on these sites can be manipulated by tools such as photoshop, and that individuals tend to only post social ideals. It is important for all of us to remember that we don’t see the whole story when we are looking only at someone’s social media accounts and people only post what they want you to see.
By Alicia Bell – Assistant Psychologist at TIC+
If you live in Gloucestershire and are aged 9-21, you can get support from our TIC+ counsellors. TIC+ works hard at raising funds so they can arrange for a counsellor to see you for free, all you need to do is call us on 01594 372777 or text us on 07520 634063 to arrange an appointment. We know it can be hard to take that first step but, like the other young people we’ve helped, you’ll be so glad you did.
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