By Shruti Ram, B.S.
In today’s culture, people in the United States live in a media-saturated environment, and over 92% of American adolescents report going online every single day (Elmore, Scull & Kupersmidt, 2018). Social media allows us exchange and develop ideas and stay connected with each other, but it also allows us to monitor others’ social lives, compare ourselves to others, and quantify our friendships. It may not come as a surprise, but increased media exposure has been associated with increased anxiety, depression, drug abuse and eating disorder symptoms (Mabe, Forney, Keel, 2014; Elmore, Scull & Kupersmidt, 2018), leading researchers to label social media as “super peer” to adolescents.
So how exactly does social media influence the development of disordered eating?
Social media use has been found to be a risk factor for adolescents with eating disorders, and increased engagement in image-centric social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat have been associated with increased body satisfaction, drive for thinness, perfectionism, and social comparison across different genders and races (Mabe, Forney, Keel, 2014; Howard et al., 2017; Griffiths, Murray, Krug & McLean, 2018). Individuals with disordered eating are more likely to spend time on image-centric social media, place increased importance in receiving likes and comments, spend more time editing photos, and compare their own photos to other individuals on social media (Bennett, 2018).
One reason this might be the case is that existing eating disorder symptoms might drive maladaptive uses of social media. The terms “thinspiration” and “fitspiration” are increasingly being used in order to reference something serving as motivation for a person seeking to maintain a very low body weight. The abundance of “thinspiration”, “fitspiration” and other pro-anorexia blogs and social media accounts can be used to disseminate information about harmful eating disorder behaviors, such as extreme restriction, exercise, and laxative use. These communities normalize these harmful behaviors, and often romanticize eating disorders and mental illnesses, contributing towards the development of worsening of symptoms (Branley & Covey, 2017). Social support, typically seen as a prosocial aspect of social media, can thus become harmful.
Censorship of these pro-anorexia sites and forums may have a minimal effect on disordered eating, considering the pervasiveness of the thin ideal in our everyday lives, which is present even in generic messages. Whether it is celebrities endorsing laxative “flat-tummy tea” or the increased popularity of photoshop and facetune to erase everyday imperfections, individuals have reported being less satisfied with their lives and bodies (Griffiths, Murray, Krug & McLean, 2018). Moreover, censorship would discount the positive effects of social media, such as the use of social media for pro-recovery and relapse prevention groups.
As social media continues to become a bigger part of our daily lives, it is important to consider its role in contributing towards eating disorder symptoms and the harmful idealization of the thin ideal. One way to combat the negative messages represented in the media is through media literacy.
What is social media literacy?
Media literacy, and specifically social media literacy, could be a promising form of eating disorder prevention. Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media in a variety of forms (McLean, & Paxton, 2018). The idea behind media literacy is that individuals should be educated on informed interpretations of the media, and be able to critique images and to make an assessment about how realistic or otherwise images are. Social media literacy is a novel approach to media literacy (McLean et al., 2017; McLean, & Paxton, 2018) that includes two perspectives:
Social media literacy allows us to see the motivations for messages we are fed. Commercial messages have idealized images in order to sell us a product. Brands like Victoria’s Secret attempt to sell us a heavily edited fantasy in order to increase sales for their lingerie, profiting off of women’s body dissatisfaction. On the other hand, messages from our peers may lead us to believe that their lives are perfect, but your friend’s perfectly curated Instagram feed does not show the hidden insecurities we all may have about our appearance, career, or relationships.
One popular message that has been circulating in social media recently has been to ask yourself “who profits off this emotion?” in response to body/appearance dissatisfaction – this question is an excellent way to challenge appearance ideal norms in social media. The reality is that no one is perfect, despite what the smiling, filtered images on social media may be telling you. Holding yourself to an unrealistic standard benefits no one but the corporations that are profiting from it.
Pilot tests of social media literacy as a prevention program for eating disorders have proven successful (McLean et al., 2017; Tamplin), however, everyone can benefit from it. Through social media literacy, we can begin to understand that social media is not a healthy scenario for social comparison. We are less likely to post about our personal failings, or images that show our imperfections, and the same is true for celebrities and magazines. Becoming social media literate allows us to realize the discrepancy between social media and “real life”. It shows us that comparison on social media is unrealistic – we are comparing our “real” selves with others’ “best” selves, whether it be on Instagram or the pages of Cosmopolitan.
Another idea related to social media literacy is evaluating the time you spend on social media altogether. The number of social media networks you are active on is associated with increased negative outcomes, and reduced time on social media has been associated with a variety of positive outcomes for mental health (Primack et al., 2017). If you find yourself spending more time on social media rather than enjoying experiences with your loved ones, or engaging in other hobbies, you may find yourself more at risk for social media’s negative influences. There are many benefits to social media, but if you find yourself obsessing over getting the perfect picture or looking at other people’s achievements, you may run the risk of not living in the moment, and hence feeling less satisfied with your own life.
We might not have the power to regulate standards in the beauty and entertainment industries, but we can make changes in our own lives to minimize the negative impact the appearance ideal has in our daily lives. Social media literacy has the potential to reduce disordered eating symptoms, as well as increase satisfaction in our lives and appearances. However, you might be doing yourself a favor by just logging off.
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