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The role of social media in eating disorders

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Ibiza Calm - The role of social media in eating disorders
10/08/2022 | category: News

The role of social media in eating disorders

Many studies have been done on the link between the media’s portrayal of the perfect body image – that of a thin female and muscular male – and the ever-growing obsession with body size; the unhealthy and sometimes dangerous weight-loss practices engaged by some in the pursuit to get the “perfect body”; and the resulting development of eating and food-related disorders.

Between the years 1960 and 2000, the number of individuals presenting with food and body-image disorders doubled. At the same time, there is evidence of a significant change in the weight and size of both male and female models portrayed throughout western society’s media and the perception of the ‘perfect or ideal body’. Over time the cultural ideal for women’s body size and shape has become noticeably thinner (in fact, 70% of images in magazines dated towards the end of that period show a model who is underweight), and men’s body size and shape has become stronger and more muscular.

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Sadly, in the last 20 years, the upward trend has continued, with eating disorders now affecting at least 9% of the population worldwide. During the same period, we have seen an explosion in the growth of social media. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Pinterest stream a constant deluge of images, videos, and content to your smartphone. A device that most teenagers (and young adults) are using to access social media sites, in some cases for upwards of seven hours per day.

Whilst an eating disorder can be developed at any time, by anyone, the most common age of onset is between 12-25. Though it has been historically more likely for a woman or girl to develop one, the numbers of men and boys are rising steadily.

Social media platforms are a great way to communicate with friends, share pictures and videos, celebrate life events, and keep up to date with what is happening in the rest of the world. However, one of the biggest downsides has got to be the catastrophic impact it can have on a person’s mental health and well-being.

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As with other areas of the media (newspapers, magazines, television) the information being displayed on social media platforms can have a significant influence on an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. It can impact their self-perception, self-esteem, self-respect – and body- image, which then translates into a person’s relationship with food, eating and exercise.

Young people are influenced daily by the pressure of social media to look and act a certain way, and if not careful, these efforts can turn into an eating disorder; or present as other mental health issues such as low self-esteem, low self-confidence, depression, or anxiety.

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a serious mental health condition where food, and the control of what, when, and how to eat is used to manage thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. They can affect the sufferer’s ability to function physically, psychologically, and socially. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines eating disorders as “behavioural conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviours and associated distressing thoughts and emotions”.

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They often co-occur with other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, self-harming, borderline personality disorder (BPD), obsessive-compulsive (OCD) and substance use disorders (SUD).

There are three main types of eating disorders:

Anorexia nervosa – This eating disorder is symbolised by extreme thinness caused by self-starvation. Individuals suffering with this disease frequently have a distorted view of their own body image, seeing themselves as “fat” or overweight, and a preoccupation with controlling their body size, calorie intake, and exercise. They will use severe, and often dangerous, methods to control their weight management – such as skipping meals/limiting their food ingestion, making themselves vomit, taking laxatives, and punishing or excessive exercise regimes.

Bulimia Nervosa – This disorder is characterised as a frequent and persistent cycle of binging on excessive amounts of food: in a short space of time. Then attempting to purge the body of the excess calories consumed by induced vomiting, using laxatives and/or enemas, or excessively exercising.

Binge-eating disorder (BED) – the regular and compulsive intake of large amounts of food, often eaten very quickly and to the point of being uncomfortably full. Similar to that seen in bulimia but without the purging. There are a lot of feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment about this excessive binging and these binges most often take place in secret.

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Other lesser-known eating disorders include –

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) – is the delusional belief that one’s body or appearance is severely flawed and the obsessive-compulsive drive to hide, change, or “fix” it.

Muscle Dysmorphia (MD) – often affecting young men; and sometimes called bigorexia or megarexia. This is the idea that one’s body is too small, or skinny and not muscular enough. Driving an individual to take drastic measures to “bulk up” including the use of anabolic steroids.

Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) – is a type of eating disorder which causes the individual to restrict food intake by range or amount, sometimes to the point that it leads to nutritional deficiencies and other health concerns. This could be because of a variety of reasons such as the taste, texture, brand, or a previous bad experience. This mental health disorder is not generally linked to an obsession with body image and is driven more by an anxiety type disorder.

Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) – previously known as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) is when your symptoms don’t exactly match any of those above. This is still considered a serious, life-threatening illness which requires treatment.

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Symptoms of an eating disorder include –

• Preoccupation with weight and body shape.
• Eating very little.
• Repeatedly bingeing on large quantities of food (often very quickly).
• Applying very strict habits or routines around food.
• Induced vomiting or taking laxatives after food.
• Excessive exercise (too much and too frequently).
• Avoiding social situations that involve food.
• Becoming withdrawn, anxious, or depressed.

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Physical symptoms can include –

• Feeling cold or tired all the time.
• Dizziness, racing heart, fainting, low blood pressure or pulse rate.
• High blood pressure.
• Dramatic weight loss.
• Digestive problems – acid reflux, bloating, constipation, or diarrhoea.
• Poor or disrupted sleep
• Hair loss.
• Delayed puberty.
• Not menstruating (women and girls).
• Weakened immune system.
• Low energy and overall poor health.

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Psychological symptoms –

• Anxiety.
• Depression.
• Isolation and loneliness.
• Guilt and shame.
• Feelings of failure.
• Obsessive thoughts and preoccupations.
• Compulsive behaviours.
• Self-harming.
• Suicidal thoughts.

Alongside the co-occurring mood and anxiety disorders, the abuse of drugs and alcohol is widespread among people that struggle with eating disorders.

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Rehab in Spain

Here at our luxury rehabilitation centre on the Spanish island of Ibiza, we have a highly qualified team experienced in a range of therapies for the treatment of eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive, anxiety, depressive and substance use disorders, as well as alcohol, drug, and process addiction.

For further information and details on admissions to the rehab centre, contact sharon@ibizacalm.com


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