Impact of social media on people living with eating disorders during COVID-19

Social media

The unprecedented consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have meant that majority of the population have been working from, and confined to their homes for many months on end.

Throughout the pandemic, our social media channels have become increasingly flooded with content emphasising the importance of staying active, with tips on the best exercises to do at home, how to lose weight while stuck indoors, and what to eat to stay healthy during lockdown.

According to Professor Cynthia Bulik, PhD, Founding Director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders and Global Lead Principal Investigator of EDGI, there has been a significant amount of media surrounding the “quarantine 15” (the 15-pound weight gain during self-isolation) and the adverse impact of obesity on COVID-19 outcomes in those infected with the virus.

“With an inherently comparative component to eating disorders, and feelings of low self-worth possessed by those living with eating disorders, stories which centre around body image often act in direct opposition to recovery and may even trigger a relapse in people who have recovered from an eating disorder,” said Prof Bulik.

In a recent study, conducted in early 2020 and lead by Cynthia Bulik, PhD, founding director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (CEED) and Christine Peat, PhD, director of the National Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (NCEED, people living with an eating disorder in the United States and the Netherlands were surveyed on the impact COVID-19, and its subsequent consequences, had on them. The study ascertained the potential harmful impacts of social media on these individuals.

In April, at the start of lockdown, 57 per cent of participants responded with “frequently” or “daily or more” to the question “In the past two weeks I have felt anxious about not being able to exercise”, with one of the most common answers in the free text response to this question being that “exposure to toxic social media was triggering”.

The negative impacts of social media on body image are certainly not a new consideration, and have been present long before the COVID-19 outbreak. Social media often seems to centre around physical appearance comparison and a certain amount of “fat talk”.

While on a conscious level we are aware that images on social media may be touched up and curated, with filters applied, for those living with eating disorders who have a tendency to compare themselves to others, social media feeds overpopulated with exercise, diet and weight loss advice and images can certainly have a detrimental effect.

Despite the potential harmful effects of social media on body image and social media often being described as problematic for mental health issues and body image, new research shows that viewing body positive Instagram content may actually improve women’s body image.

“I absolutely love it when people post natural pictures of themselves” said Prof Cynthia Bulik.

“We have indeed successfully used social media channels positively in recruiting for our global Eating Disorders Genetics Initiative (EDGI) to reach large numbers of individuals out there who are actively experiencing eating disorders but who are not in treatment.

“Needless to say, if you or a loved one are struggling with body image due to content on social media, make sure you take a break from these social platforms. If you want to continue to use these social platforms but find yourself triggered by the contents, we suggest you unfollow pages that may be triggering. Further, seek professional help by contacting your local healthcare professional.”

Visit www.insideoutinstitute.org.au to complete their screener and assessment, and to access more information and professional support.

Australian professional patient support services offering 24/7 helpline services include:

o Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

o LifeLine: 13 11 14

o Men’s Line Australia: 1300 78 99 78

o Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800.

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