Social Media Use and Eating Disorders in Adolescents

In the face of obsessing over being thin and toned, a relationship has emerged between social media use and eating disorders in adolescents.
Social Media Use and Eating Disorders in Adolescents

Last update: 04 March, 2021

The prevalence of eating disorders in adolescents is 5%, with females predominating. Generally, the ratio is usually 4:1 with respect to boys. These figures have increased with the rise of internet use, especially due to the use of social networks and eating disorders in adolescents.

First of all, an eating disorder (ED) refers to a mental disorder that affects food intake behaviors and preoccupation with body weight. A multitude of biological, psychological, sociocultural, and familial factors cause eating disorders in adolescents and the population at large.

In addition, they encompass different disorders that have different symptoms, which, in turn, allow for diagnosis. The most well-known are anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and vigorexia.

Use of social networks and ED in adolescents

Social networks emerged to promote online communication worldwide. Today, 90–95% of young people and schoolchildren between 12 and 16 years of age use social media, according to data from the National Institute of Statistics.

Social Media Use and Eating Disorders in Adolescents

Although they’re an advantage for sharing information, shopping, giving opinions, and establishing work synergies, they put privacy and physical and mental health at risk. For example, they increase the risk of suffering from an eating disorder in people who are vulnerable and care about what others think.

How does the use of social media encourage eating disorders?

Below, you can see what characteristics of social networks predispose adolescents to alter eating behavior:

  • They prioritize visual content over text. In this way, they encourage the tendency to compare oneself physically. What’s more, teens try to imitate the behavior of the person they see in order to achieve the “perfect body.”
  • Content appears according to tastes and interests. So, such content is biased and prevents users from acquiring other points of view.
  • They allow constant interaction and access to a large amount of information that’s not usually verified.

There are even groups or accounts that have come into existence that encourage behaviors that reinforce the maintenance of eating disorders in adolescents, especially with respect to anorexia and bulimia. Often, the original purpose is to provide a refuge and place to share their experience with others who are going through the same situation. However, users end up aggravating their health and allowing the same thoughts to overpower them.

Experts have also established a positive relationship with the obsession among Instagram users with taking care of themselves and eat healthy. Even taking selfies has become popular. These types of photos have been linked to the perception of body image.

The first study, from 2015, observed that the more time users spend retouching and sharing them, the greater the risk of developing an ED due to body dissatisfaction. Consequently, they increase their tendency to restrict food intake.

How can we prevent this?

While it’s true that adolescents tend to mask the symptoms of ED, a 2018 article mentions some tips for families. The most important ones are:

Social Media Use and Eating Disorders in Adolescents

  • Create a positive relationship with food, avoiding the restriction or prohibition of any particular food associated with weight. Also, don’t use food as a reward or force children to finish their plate in exchange for allowing them to eat dessert.
  • Avoid negative comments about people’s physique. Instead, we can instill in them that they’re valued for their personality, smile, etc.
  • Show interest in their concerns and talk openly about photo retouching in magazines, social pressure regarding thinness or muscle, etc. Find out their own opinions on the subject.
  • Show interest in the topics they look up and how it influences their environment.

On the use of social networks and eating disorders in adolescents

In conclusion, research shows that the use of social networks among adolescents is a predisposing factor regarding eating disorders. Of course, other factors also play a role, such as the influence of their friends. In addition, it’s not the time teens spend on social networks and the internet that increases the risk of ED. Rather, it’s the amount of exposure to content related to health, beauty, exercise or dieting.

It might interest you...
Social Media Platforms: Is TikTok the Most Popular One?
You are MomRead it in You are Mom
Social Media Platforms: Is TikTok the Most Popular One?

TikTok has become incredibly popular lately. In this article, you'll find out more about one of the biggest social media platforms today.

 



  • ACAB (Asociación Contra la Anorexia y la Bulimia). ¿Qué son los trastornos de la conducta alimentaria? [Consultado el 12 de mayo de 2020] Disponible en: http://www.acab.org/es/que-son-los-trastornos-de-la-conducta-alimentaria
  • Rivas T, Bersabé R, Castro S. (2001). Prevalencia de los trastornos de la conducta alimentaria en adolescentes de Málaga (España). Salud Mental, 24(2).
  • Calado M, Lameiras M, Sepulveda AR, Rodríguez Y, Carrera MV. (2010) The mass media exposure and disordered eating behaviours in Spanish secondary students. Eur Eat Disord Rev, 18(5): 417-27.
  • Calado M, Lameiras M, Sepulveda AR, Rodriguez Y, Carrera MV (2011) The association between exposure to mass media and body dissatisfaction among Spanish adolescents. Womens Health Issues, 21(5): 390-9.
  • Saul JS, Rodgers RF (2018) Adolescent Eating Disorder Risk and the Online World. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am, 27(2):221-28.
  • Ferguson CJ, Muñoz ME, Garza A, Galindo M (2014) Concurrent and prospective analyses of peer, television and social media influences on body dissatisfaction, eating disorder symptoms and life satisfaction in adolescent girls. J Youth Adolesc, 43(1): 1-14.
  • Turner PG, Lefevre CE (2017) Instagram use is linked to increased symptoms of orthorexia nervosa. Eat Weight Disord, 22(2): 277-84.
  • Derenne J, Beresin E (2018) Body Image, Media, and Eating Disorders-a 10-Year Update. Acad Psychiatry, 42(1): 129-34.
  • McLean SA, Paxton SJ, Wertheim EH1, Masters J (2015) Photoshopping the selfie: Self photo editing and photo investment are associated with body dissatisfaction in adolescent girls. Int J Eat Disord, 48(8): 1132-40.