Growing research documents the harmful effects of social media use on mental health, including body image and the development of eating disorders
(THE CONVERSATION) Media influences and conventional beauty standards have long plagued society.
This issue took on new urgency in May 2023 when the U.S. Surgeon General issued a major public advisory about the links between social media and youth mental health.
Research shows that images of beauty portrayed in movies, television, and magazines can lead to mental illness, problems with disordered eating, and body image dissatisfaction.
These trends have been documented in women and men, the LGBTQ+ community, and people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Experts have long suspected that social media may play a role in the growing mental health crisis in young people. However, the Surgeon General’s warning is one of the first public warnings backed by solid research.
Social media can be toxic
Body dissatisfaction among children and adolescents is common and has been linked to a decrease in quality of life, worsening mood and poor eating habits.
As an eating disorder and anxiety specialist, I work regularly with clients experiencing eating disorder symptoms, self-esteem issues, and anxiety related to social media.
I also have first-hand experience with this topic — I’m 15 years into recovery from an eating disorder and growing up when people were starting to use social media extensively. In my view, the impact of social media on diet and exercise patterns needs to be further studied to inform future policy directions, school planning, and therapeutic treatment.
Teenage and adolescent mental health has been in decline for the past decade, and the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the deterioration of youth mental health and brought it into the spotlight. As the mental health crisis escalates, researchers have been taking a closer look at the role of social media in these growing mental health problems.
The pros and cons of social media
About 95% of children and adolescents in the United States between the ages of 10 and 17 use social media almost constantly.
Research has shown that social media can be helpful in finding community support. However, studies have also shown that social media use contributes to social comparisons, unrealistic expectations, and negative mental health effects.
Additionally, those with pre-existing mental health conditions tend to spend more time on social media. People in that category are more likely to self-objectify and internalize the thin body ideal. Women and people with pre-existing body image issues are more likely to feel worse about their bodies and themselves after spending time on social media.
A breeding ground for eating disorders
A recent review found that, as with mass media, social media use is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder, body image dissatisfaction, and disordered eating. In this review, social media use was shown to contribute to negative self-esteem, social comparisons, decreased emotional regulation, and idealized self-presentation that negatively affected body image.
Another study, called the Dove Self-Esteem Project, released in April 2023, found that 9 in 10 children and adolescents aged 10 to 17 are exposed to toxic beauty content on social media, and 1 in 2 say that this impacts their mental health.
Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that develop due to biological, social and psychological factors. Hospitalizations for eating disorders and the need for treatment have increased dramatically during the pandemic.
Some reasons include isolation, food shortages, boredom, and social media content related to weight gain, such as quarantine15. That was a reference to the weight gain some people were experiencing at the start of the pandemic, similar to the freshman 15’s belief that they will gain 15 pounds in their freshman year of college. Many teens whose routines have been disrupted by the pandemic have turned to eating disorder behaviors out of an often false sense of control have been influenced by family members who held unhealthy beliefs about food and exercise.
The researchers also found that increased time at home during the pandemic led to more youth use of social media and thus greater exposure to toxic body image and diet content from social media.
While social media alone does not cause eating disorders, society’s beliefs about beauty, which are amplified by social media, can contribute to the development of eating disorders.
Thinspo and fitpo
Toxic beauty standards online include the standardization of cosmetic and surgical procedures and pro-eating disorder content, which promotes and romanticises eating disorders. For example, social media sites have promoted trends like thinspo, which focuses on the skinny ideal, and fitpo, which perpetuates the belief that there is a perfect body that can be achieved with diets, supplements, and excessive exercise.
Research has shown that social media content that encourages clean eating or dieting through pseudoscientific claims can lead to obsessive behaviors towards dietary patterns. These unsubstantiated wellness posts can lead to weight cycling, yo-yo dieting, chronic stress, body dissatisfaction, and an increased likelihood of internalizing lean-to-ideal muscle.
Some social media posts feature pro-eating content, which directly or indirectly encourages disordered eating. Other posts promote deliberate manipulation of one’s body, using harmful quotes like nothing tastes as good as skinny sensations. These posts provide a false sense of connection, allowing users to bond over a shared goal of losing weight, altering their appearance, and continuing to follow disordered eating patterns.
While young people can often recognize and understand the toxic effects of beauty advice on their self-esteem, they can still continue to engage with this content. This is partly because friends, influencers, and social media algorithms encourage people to follow certain accounts.
How policy changes could help
Lawmakers in the United States are proposing different regulations for social media sites.
Policy recommendations include more transparency from social media companies, creating higher privacy standards for children’s data, and possible tax incentives and social responsibility initiatives that would discourage companies and marketers from using photos altered.
Even small steps around the house to reduce social media consumption can make a difference. Parents and guardians can create phone-free times for the family. Examples of this include putting the phones away while the family watches a movie together or during mealtimes.
Adults can also help by modeling healthy social media behaviors and encouraging children and adolescents to focus on building connections and engaging in valuable activities.
Mindful social media consumption is another helpful approach. This requires acknowledging what it feels like to scroll through social media. If spending time on social media makes you feel worse about yourself or seems to cause mood swings in your child, it may be time to change the way you or your child interacts with social media.
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