How Social Media, Including Instagram and Facebook, ‘Cause Anorexia’

Experts say the self-bragging pictures of shiny, perfect lives on social media encourage other users to feel negative about their own lives and bodies.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

It takes only a few minutes during your morning Starbucks run or your commute to work to have all your nagging insecurities validated and stoked.

A quick scroll through Facebook and Instagram produces a stream of engagement ring selfies in the perfect Valencia filter—in fact, TheKnot offers specific tips for taking them—along with pics of tropical drinks on exotic beaches.

And then you suddenly question why you aren’t engaging in these seemingly fabulous life events.

Medical and nutritional experts say the social media bragfest may be acting as more than a catalyst to your green-eyed monster.

Facebook, Instagram, and other social media technology may be inadvertently worsening the struggles of those suffering from eating disorders.

“The Internet and social media have brought us amazing things. The downside, specifically related to the clients—with Facebook and Instagram, in particular—is it floods us with images that are very often unrealistic,” said Dr. Constance Quinn, New York site director of the Renfrew Center, an institute for the treatment of eating disorders in women.

She spoke Wednesday when the Renfrew Center held its first summit on current body image issues in a panel called “Body Image: Beyond the Curve.”

It’s no surprise that viral Internet body challenges are kryptonite for people who suffer from eating disorders. Most revoltingly popular was (is) the “thigh gap,” in which women post “inspirational” photos showcasing the growing gaps between their shrinking thighs and encourage other women to make their legs skinnier in a similar fashion.

Model Robyn Lawley criticized the “thigh gap” in The Daily Beast in 2013 as a “disturbing breed of thinspiration.”

But seeing an endless array of your peers’ successes—whether it’s how thin they look in a bikini on the beaches of Cannes or how happy they look with their family at Christmas around the perfect holiday dinner—may encourage the pejorative self-comparisons that are “the most salient factor” in developing eating disorders, said Adrienne Ressler, the vice president of professional development for the Renfrew Center Foundation.

Negative self-image, and specifically negative self-talk, has been connected with eating disorder severity.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders found that greater average frequency of negative self-talk “predicted greater frequency of purging, greater attempts to restrict eating… and increases in overall ED [eating disorder] severity.”

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Meanwhile, Facebook may be linked to that kind of negativity, or at least that dissatisfaction with one’s life. A 2013 study from the University of Michigan showed the more time users spent on Facebook the worse they felt about their lives in general.

In 2011, a study from the University of Haifa of 248 girls ages 12 to 19 found that the “more time girls spend on Facebook, the more they suffered conditions of bulimia, anorexia, physical dissatisfaction, negative physical self-image, negative approach to eating and more of an urge to be on a weight-loss diet.”

This year, the Daily Mail reported the firsthand account of Kerry Hooton, a 22-year-old girl who believed Facebook and Instagram “fueled” her anoerxia.

“I have never compared myself to celebrities, it has always been the average person and I believe social media has heightened the ability to allow myself and others to do this,” she told the Daily Mail.

Hooton said she’d spend hours scrolling through these platforms, and eventually forced herself to consume under 200 calories a day.

Quinn did not offer a blanket denunciation of social media, but she expressed deep concerns about its impact on her clientele.

“Patients talk about seeing wedding, bachelorette party, holiday photos of their friends. [They think] the grass is always greener,” Quinn said.

She specifically pointed out how “we’re obsessed with this idea of putting out our best selves” on social media, selecting specific filters and having the perfectly practiced pose.

Dr. Kai-Ping Wang, the Northeast Regional Medical Director at the Renfrew Center, cited the example of “seeing photos of a neighbor or friend showing a flat stomach three weeks after giving birth.” To him, these social media networks “make it a lot easier to maximize dangerous symptoms,” like negative self-talk.

Innocuous or even healthy technology can be fuel for detrimental behavior in the hands of people suffering from negative self image and eating disorders.

For example, Quinn said she has also seen patients come in discussing their obsession with Fitbits.

“Fitbits can provide much good, but in the hands of someone challenged with an eating disorder, it can present a big problem,” she said.

Trish Lieberman, the director of nutrition at the Renfrew Center, spoke about how the Fitbit potential to not only track one’s self, but others, feeds into the mindset of “I have to be the best today with the most steps and the most calories.”

Facebook, Instagram, and Fitbit did not return The Daily Beast’s requests for comment by the time of publication.

No one at the panel suggested these forms of technology deserve sole blame for people’s eating disorders, but the influence they appear to have shows how deeply eating disorders penetrate patients’ mindset.

Quinn stressed that it’s not necessarily the visuals of seeing people who are thinner, but the general sense of self-comparison and competition that can be triggered by the flood of posts and pics from coworkers, camp friends, and third cousins bragging about their latest achievement or adventure.

“The visual presentation is so superficial. Eating disorders are so much deeper,” Quinn told The Daily Beast after the summit.

“On Facebook, you see announcements of people graduating from college or getting engaged,” she pointed out, while, in contrast, many of her patients “are not reaching those milestones. They’re unwell.”

“Women give so much in the service of their eating disorders. Some women have to drop out of high school or it takes them several years to get through college. They can’t sustain intimate relationships.”

Thus, when her patients scroll through their Facebook newsfeeds it “just causes further shame,” she said. It feeds the mentality of “‘I’m not good enough. Look at where these people from high school are, and I’m sitting with you on this couch,’” she said.

Quinn said she does encourage her patients to sometimes take a Facebook-free weekend, but since much of her clientele is ages 19 to 30, that can be tough.

“They’ve had smartphones since they were relatively young,” said Quinn. “It’s the first thing they check in the morning, and it’s the last thing they check at night. It’s a part of their daily life.”