How your social media habit might be feeding your disordered eating

3 Steps You Can Take Now to Combat the Effects of Scrolling

It’s the perfect storm. You stare at a Zoom screen all day, in close proximity to the snack cabinet during on and off quarantines. New Year’s resolutions get less resolute by the day as January creeps along, and 80% of people fail. Increases in mental health crises as pandemic stressors move from overwhelming to devastating. When you add social media scrolling, our nation’s favorite pastime, it’s easy to see how quickly body images concerns become more serious mental health problems.

The Undeniable Connection Between Social Media and Disordered Eating

Body image and disordered eating challenges start terrifyingly young, with some research showing that children as young as 3 are already unhappy with their bodies. But instead of growing up in a body-positive culture focused on nutritious eating and strong bodies, preteens’ vulnerabilities are further exploited by social media. For example, in a groundbreaking investigation by Wall Street Journal, Facebook company documents reported that they knew that Instagram is toxic for teen girls, with one in three experiencing worsened symptoms, but they continued with development of Instagram Kids anyway. The program has now been halted after an outcry from public health experts and mental health advocates, but this is just the tip of the iceberg in understanding the deep psychological impacts of social media. In a survey of 1500 people aged 16-24, 86% said that their happiness was directly linked to social media. There’s no question it has immense power to do good, or harm, especially for those who already had other mental health concerns or disordered eating.

Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorders

Not all body image concerns result in eating disorders, and it’s important to acknowledge the expansive number of issues and disorders that they can lead to, while others simply report these feelings without developing any conditions at all. For some people, constant exposure to social media images results in the compulsion or desire to alter their own eating habits to achieve the “ideal” body they’ve been so frequently exposed to. One key symptom is “distorted body image, a self-esteem that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape…”. Specific symptoms on their own can be classified as “disordered eating.” People with disordered eating might engage in a range of irregular eating patterns that may or may not lead to an eating disorder diagnosis, such as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder.

People with disordered eating might, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, be frequent dieters, skip meals, have chronic weight changes, engage in rigid food and exercise routines, and feel guilt, shame, loss of control, or preoccupation with food practices. An eating disorder itself is diagnosed when a medical professional determines that, according to the guidelines from the American Psychiatric Association, a person’s symptoms meet the criteria in that definition. They report around 5% of the population will develop an eating disorder, most often during adolescence and young adulthood, and that they are more common in women but can impact anyone at any age.

Combatting the Negative Impact of Social Media

Whether you suspect you or a loved one might have an eating disorder, disordered eating, or body image concerns, you can examine the role social media is playing in contributing to harmful thoughts and behaviors. While the most optimal outcome is to work with your healthcare provider on a treatment plan, often including a variety of therapy options and other prevention and recovery measures, you can also take concrete steps now to offset social media’s contributions to the problem.

Clean up your accounts, regain control

You might think social media is simply a huge algorithm spewing content towards you, tailored to your interests and even your fears, and you are correct. The 2020 film The Social Dilemma analyzes this concept, asserting “The technology that connects us also divides us.” The film’s premise was based on data such as the American Journal of Epidemiology which found that in a 5,000-person study, higher social media use correlated with declines in mental health and life satisfaction. It may seem easier to just resign ourselves to the idea that we can’t control social media, including what we consume. But we can.

To do this, start by turning off settings that mean you are literally allowing social media apps to target your perceived interests for advertisements by limiting ad tracking. Also, dedicate just one hour of one day, one time, to intentionally unfollowing anyone who you don’t think aligns with a body-positive message — accounts that promote diet culture, before and after shots, and those that feature bodies with unattainable traits are great places to start. Actively seek out body-positive influencers to help you flip the script in your head (this list even features an eating disorder therapist who helps other combat issues she has faced herself).

Try a brief social media “cleanse”

Scientists have compared scrolling to drugs — and they aren’t wrong. Harvard reports social media addiction can be blamed on dopamine, that feel-good drug that’s released when we are on our phones, and the reason that 73% of people feel a low-level panic when they can’t find their phones. It’s also the reason we dedicate two to four hours per day on our devices, or around 2,600 daily touches (imagine touching your partner and kids that much instead). If you aren’t ready to make a change, start with simply observing your typical social media use. Prepare to be shocked when you head to your screen time log.

Consider what a social media cleanse might mean for you, and it will vary for everyone. If you are on your phone all day, choosing a two-hour period to leave it in another room might be considered a cleanse. For others, you might consider going the weekend without it as you embark on a camping trip, or just a high-quality time weekend at home.

Replace the habit with a better one

If you know you aren’t going to be able to do a cleanse, but you still want to make a meaningful change for your mental health, consider moving social media apps into a harder-to-reach folder, on the last screen of your smartphone. Then, with some research and intention, choose something else you can click on and interact with when you have that urge to grab your phone. It could be a seriously intense game of Words with Friends with your best buddies. It could be a mental health app, such a cognitive behavior therapy tool allowing you to have a mini therapist in your pocket for when difficult thoughts arise (not near as good as the real thing, but it might tide you over between sessions). Finally, consider replacing a scrolling session with a meditation moment, choosing an app that leads you through a quick mindfulness practice.

Take your disordered eating and eating disorder symptoms seriously, as you would with any mental health concern, making a specific plan of action with a certified therapist for your health. No amount of scrolling will fill the void.

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults.