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A Lens on Social Media, Eating Disorders & Self Perception

Eating disorders are complex illnesses that affect all kinds of people, regardless of gender, age, size, ethnicity, or background, and they need to be treated carefully in media coverage. Avoiding numbers, stereotypes, and before/after comparisons is critical.

-The National Eating Disorders Org., 2020

A Lens On Eating Disorders, Social Media, and Self Perception

Social media platforms have a significant impact on our society and there is no denying their increasing popularity within the past decade. This is particularly true when it comes to young adults and eating disorders. Although social media is a relatively new phenomenon — As of 2020, TikTok isn’t yet 4 years old, Instagram is 10— it is a fundamental part of the daily, hourly, and sometimes minute-by-minute life of more than 80% of Americans. Like other media outlets, the information shared on social media platforms is shown to produce significant influence on a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and overall mental health and wellbeing. This is especially true when it comes to self-image, self-esteem, and a person’s relationship with food. This beckons the question: Does social media drive eating disorders?

Before the dawn of online social photography sharing services in the early 2000s, Americans had a relatively small community of neighbors and friends within their spheres of social influence. Sharing personal photographs, information, and “selfies” took longer to stream through to the general population. Social media, though, brought new concepts — and ideals — into American homes. Readers and viewers now knew what and who other people were wearing, going, doing, watching, dating, eating, enjoying, and pressures to “keep up with the Joneses” increased, even when the “Joneses” weren’t anything like themselves (or real people for that matter). This impact and subsequent persuasion were evident in the way people, especially adolescents, viewed themselves in comparison to the body weight, body shape, physical attributes, and physical appearance of those featured in their favorite online mediums and forum.

Moreover, young people are not only comparing themselves to models and celebrities in fashion magazines whose images have been photo-manipulated to unrealistic forms. Social media promotes lifestyle choices by way of branded virtual personalities and digital ‘influencers.’ And despite the benefits of their information sharing and community forming tools, for adolescents in the U.S., social media use is ubiquitous and oftentimes addictive. A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that 97%of adolescents report using at least 1 of the 7 most popular social media platforms (YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit). Moreover, digital media use by adolescents is common: 95% report owning or having access to a smartphone, and almost 90% report they are online at least several times a day. Many adolescents and adults alike follow influencers or dream of becoming an influencer themselves. The reality is influencers are not what you think. Virtual personalities created by companies have potential to manipulate young people.

Many children and adolescents cannot discriminate between what they see and what is real. For instance, young people are often unaware that digital technology and manipulation in the fashion industry use air brush and digital enhancement to portray the ‘ideal’ female and male body let alone the advanced digital and programmatic practices that go into the content they ingest on a regular and sometimes habitual basis via social media. These images, videos, and stories promote unrealistic standards that are impossible to achieve (even for the paid models and celebrities themselves).

Even more startling, the proliferation of pro-eating disorder website and social media groups encourage disordered eating behaviors and self-harm. Heavy users reported poorer quality of life and more disordered eating behaviors (JMED, Division of Pediatric Neurology, Department of Pediatrics 2012).

There is hope. Advancements in humane technology and digital psychology are taking a critical lens to the multifarious relationship between eating disorders and self-perception in our rapidly evolving online world. The field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), for example, is beginning to hold social media accountable for its imprint on vulnerable populations like communities of color, adolescents, LGBTQIA, and socio-economically disenfranchised peoples – those who are most acutely susceptible to social media influence. Empirical studies show that these communities are more likely to develop mental health traumas including anxiety type and self-image disorders correlated to their participation in online mediums like social media applications.

Recommended Reading

Dr. Stephan B. Poulter, Ph. D. Is a licensed clinical individual/family psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles, California. Dr. Poulter has worked with a multitude of psychological/life issues in a variety of settings (former police officer, theological seminary graduate) with hundreds of families, including individuals/children of all ages, parents, stepparents, and couples. He has been providing these professional mental health services to clients for over 35 years. Dr. Poulter is also an author, public speaker on parenting, adolescent and spiritual/psychological issues.

In his seventh book, ‘The Shame Factor’, Dr. Poulter explores social media and its impact on self-perception and mental health. His research slates, “The need to be plugged into your phone computer, or social cyber network can feed into an endless shame cycle. The false self of a person can show to the world may be immediately visible to millions. The public image of having many friends, lots of attention, travelling socializing, and partying can all be elaborate forms of self-deception.” Dr. Poulter’s research places a core lens on the manifestation of eating disorders and their intrinsic links to self-perception, social interaction, and rapidly evolving means of communications in an increasingly online driven society.

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