Social Media and Eating Disorders in Kids: What You Need to Know
October 15, 2021
Body dissatisfaction in teens is a growing concern and the correlation between social media and eating disorders is REAL. Learn how to help your child build body confidence and self-esteem and avert the perils of social media.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the negative effects of social media, particularly Instagram, on teenage girls’ mental health, brought attention to the link between social media and eating disorders, which have been on the rise since the year 2000.
Instagram is a visual platform where users filter and airbrush images to create “perfect” bodies, faces and even “perfect” lives.
Our culture values beauty and being thin, so it’s not surprising that a platform like this is so popular. It’s also not surprising that a teenage girl’s self-esteem might take a hit from being exposed to the unrealistic images of beauty seen in social media platforms.
I have to admit that as a mother and childhood nutrition expert, I was a little surprised and very concerned about the extent of damage social media can have on a teenage girl’s mental health and the risks associated with eating disorders.
Social media has been associated with low self-esteem, poor body image, online harassment, poor sleep, and even symptoms of depression.
In this article, we’ll dive into body dissatisfaction and the correlation between social media and eating disorders. You’ll also learn my take on how you can help your child build body confidence and self-esteem.
The Effects of Social Media on Body Image and Eating Disorders
Body image plays a big role in some of the most common eating disorders.
A distorted body image and an intense fear of gaining weight are two of the hallmark symptoms of anorexia and bulimia nervosa.
There is no one cause of an eating disorder. Personality traits and a family and cultural environment that ties appearance to self-worth are a few reasons a child might be more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder.
Social media magnifies some of these factors, like the thin ideal and body comparisons. Studies show that more hours spent on social media leads to greater body dissatisfaction, which is linked to depression and poor self-esteem.
Social media use affects how kids perceive their bodies, although boys and girls respond differently.
One study showed that social media led to more body dissatisfaction for girls.
The boys in the study had different strategies for coping with social media and they had a more positive outcome.
Girls are more likely to experience symptoms of depression linked to body dissatisfaction from social media use than boys.
The type of content that girls engage with is another factor.
Girls interact with more body-related content than boys. A study showed that girls are more likely to feel dissatisfied with their bodies when they engaged in:
- negative body talk
- sought reassurance from others
- body-comparison talk
- or idealized images of celebrities
Screen Time Differences
Spending over 3 hours a day on social media is more likely to lead to body dissatisfaction. A study showed that girls tend to internalize an “ideal body image” with excessive social media use.
Like most things in life, moderation may be the key.
How Social Media Affects Body Confidence
How many times a day do we all check ourselves in the mirror or subconsciously compare ourselves to someone else?
It’s not uncommon, but social platforms put everyone on display and judging others is common. The result? Body comparisons.
But here’s the problem – it’s not real.
Filters and airbrushing are standard. Even though your child knows about filters, she might have a hard time separating the doctored image from what she thinks she “should” look or be like.
In one study, girls were more dissatisfied with their bodies after they looked at Instagram vs. reality images. So the girls still felt bad about their appearance even when they knew the images were altered.
Fashion always falls in and out of style, but with social media, facial features and body parts set the beauty standard for young girls. It usually takes Botox, fillers, and surgery besides the filters and airbrushing to get that look, though.
It’s no wonder a young girl feels like she comes up short when she compares her body to a filtered image.
Another trap that leaves kids feeling like they don’t measure up is “Fitspiration” and “Thinspiration.”
A healthy lifestyle is a good thing, but it should be positive, flexible, and individual. Social media, however, is a megaphone for the thin-ideal and pushes a “health-halo,” which designates certain foods and lifestyles as the ideal to aspire to.
Posts dedicated to inspiring fitness and weight loss are just another standard that your child compares herself to. And that comparison not only leads to body dissatisfaction, but it leads to feelings of guilt and thoughts about dieting and exercise.
The drive for thinness and body dissatisfaction can leave girls vulnerable to developing an eating disorder.
Tips for Building Body Confidence in Kids
I wish we could inoculate our kids from all the negative messages the world sends their way, but I don’t think there are any guarantees–just hopes, wishes, and our best efforts.
We know that excessive social media use correlates with the degree of body dissatisfaction. So limiting your child’s time on social media might go a long way to protecting self-esteem.
That’s easier said than done – I understand.
Here are some ways that also promote a body-positive environment for your child.
Respect and Honor Your Own Body
Mothers and fathers who self-criticize or who criticize others send the message that a person’s value is tied to appearance.
It teaches your child to measure her worth based on how she looks compared to others.
Tolerate Normal Child Growth
Every child grows at a different pace and certain phases of growth favor more “pudginess.”
Pre-pubescence is notorious for pudginess—don’t harp on your child about his eating, exercise, or need to lose weight during this time.
Focus on Your Child’s Inner Qualities
Keep a running list of your child’s best qualities and highlight them frequently. There’s not a child on the planet that doesn’t enjoy hearing he is loyal, kind, friendly, fun, smart, thoughtful and adventurous.
Descriptive words like these can help shift the way your child thinks about himself and may help him see there is more to him than his physical appearance.
If you have a sporty kid, consider team sports. Playing sports is associated with higher self-esteem.
If not, cultivate other skills that can sustain your child’s self-esteem and body confidence. Try theater, writing, voice lessons, cooking, technology, or woodworking.
Praise your child for the effort, not the outcome. Not only does this help sustain self-esteem, but it also helps instill motivation and perseverance.
Final Thoughts on Social Media and Eating Disorders in Kids
The correlation between social media and eating disorders is a big concern.
Your child will experience ebbs and flows in body confidence along the way. On some level, self-comparison to others, figuring out where one fits, who one is, and who one wants to be is part of growing up.
The danger with social media is that it creates a filtered and airbrushed false picture of reality that makes kids feel like their appearance or their lives don’t measure up to others.
Social media is a big part of how kids socialize and feel connected to each other. Unfortunately, there’s also a strong link to body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem.
You might not be able to control everything in your child’s environment, especially when he’s away from the house. Instead, try teaching your child how to use social media responsibly and why too much can be harmful.
Your unconditional love and support—no matter what—is some of the best medicine against poor self-esteem and body image you can give to your child.
Are you concerned your child has symptoms of an eating disorder? In The Eating Disorder Guide, you’ll learn about the different eating disorders, what signs to look for, and what steps to take to get help.