Does Social Media Cause Eating Disorders? Maybe, But It Can Also Help Cure Them

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 03: Actresses Elizabeth McLaughlin (L) and Alona Tal of Amazon Studios' 'Hand Of God' take a selfie at the Getty Images Portrait Studio powered by Samsung Galaxy at 2015 Summer TCA's at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 3, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Samsung)
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Anything that takes up as much of our time as social media has bound to have some effects on us, but it's not always totally clear what those effects are. You could be forgiven for thinking that social media is causing all sorts of social ills, from depression, anxiety, and sexual promiscuity to suicide. A recent piece from the DailyMail made it sound like Facebook and Instagram cause anorexia and other eating disorders. But a more recent piece, from the same outlet, features a young woman who used Instagram to healthfully lose excess weight with the encouragement of friends. Well, which one is it? Does social media cause eating disorders, or can social media actually help you with eating disorders and weight problems you might have?

Although more research is, as usual, required, we can connect up the insights from past studies about social media to begin to understand its likely impact on weight. If browsing Facebook and Instagram for pictures of apparently perfect-looking people doing cool things is giving you a fear of missing out (FOMO) or a fear of going out (FOGO), then that kind of social media usage is likely only to make you anxious and stir up your eating disorder. If you've struggled with undereating, you might continue trying to lose too much weight, thinking that if you were skinnier then you'd be having more fun. Or, if you've struggled with overeating, you might binge and purge to ease the loneliness. 

But, more and more, people are reporting having found constructive uses for social media, including in their journeys with personal problems like (healthy) weight loss and fighting anxiety and depression. Remember the golden rule of social media usage: active participation makes social media time healthy, and lurking makes it unhealthy. Of course, use some judgment here – active participation in some kinds of "thinspiration" fora will do more harm than good, if health is really your goal. But this scientific finding is totally in line with common sense. Social media should be, well, social, because people with quality social ties are the happiest ones.

This point of view actually matches the two DailyMail stories well. The woman who became anorexic from Instagram reports having spent hours scrolling through selfies of other thin women and literally had the goal of becoming like them in mind as she lost weight. Compare this to woman who used Instagram to track her progress and find other healthy people trying to lose genuinely excessive weight. She ate three square meals a day and also used YouTube to find workout ideas. She used social media to help her break her emotional eating habits, and no longer eats out of boredom. This is the way to find health online – not by lurking. 

People who are lonely and anxious are more likely to use social media in the first place, but with a little caution you can turn the internet into a tool for health instead of an enemy of it. Just don't get sucked into a weight loss product pyramid scheme via an online "support group" – or you'll end up trading your weight problems for financial ones, oops. 


Images: Giphy (2) 

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