Social Media’s Potential Influence on Eating Disorders

Just when you’d grown weary of hearing about everyone’s “thigh gap” obsession, there’s a new body trend causing anxiety for young women. It’s cleverly labeled the “bikini bridge”. The term describes the look created when a woman lies down and her bikini bottoms hang suspended between her hip bones, showing off her enviably flat – and usually concave – stomach. Since early January, images of women with flaunting their bikini bridges have exploded across social media sites, causing concern that the trend will lead to severely disordered eating for some teen girls and young adult women. While a few social media users have glorified this body ideal for the last couple of years, the bikini bridge has only recently become popular. Its explosion earlier this year was actually fueled by an Internet prank designed to promote an outrageous idea. The hoax quickly took hold, and soon the social media-using public was inundated with what was being described as a new trend. The problem is that some adolescent girls and young women may be taking the bikini bridge ideal to heart, putting them at risk for developing a dangerous eating disorder.

Body Image Trends on Social Media

The bikini bridge, along with the thigh gap, is part of a social media trend called thinspiration. This craze involves sharing photos of women who possess these so-called physical ideals. Sometimes the photos are simply images; other times, they carry text that is supposed to inspire action. For example, a photo of a woman with a bikini bridge that’s shared on Pinterest or Tumblr – two popular social media sites – might be emblazoned with “If you have time to complain, you have time to train,” or “Summer isn’t summer without a bikini bridge.” In addition, some photos link to website content that offers dieting and exercise tips. Teen girls and young women post these images on their user accounts as well as share them with friends online. The thinspiration trend has become worrisome enough that Pinterest has started posting a warning regarding eating disorders. When a user types in specific search terms, such as thinspiration, the search results are headed by a banner reading “Eating disorders are…disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening. For treatment referrals…”

Link between Social Media & Eating Disorders

Eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia, are psychiatric conditions that can lead to profound long-term effects on a person’s physical and emotional well-being. As with other mental health conditions, the development of eating disorders is complex. Low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, feeling a lack of control, perfectionistic tendencies, and / or being ridiculed based on size or weight are factors that play a role. While research into the exact relationship between social media use and eating disorders is relatively new, mental health experts are finding cause for concern. For example, about 80% of all teenagers use social media websites, including Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest. This means the vast majority of teens are regularly exposed to a variety of messages about body shape and size. That exposure may be taking a serious toll. A study from Israeli researchers found that the more time teen girls spent using Facebook, the higher their chances for developing a negative body image and an eating disorder. There are several possible ways in which social media use influences a teen or young woman’s body image and eating behavior. They include: Peer Influence and Competition: Research suggests peer influence contributes to body dissatisfaction. Although the study found no direct connection between time spent on social media and body dissatisfaction, its authors propose that social media may be a new avenue in which youth compare themselves with others. Additionally, someone with an eating disorder who sees thinspiration-inspired images, such as bikini bridges, could view attaining those physical ideals as a challenge, further entrenching unhealthy behaviors. Low Self-Esteem: Social media use has the potential to contribute to low self-esteem, leaving some users with painful feelings of worthlessness, incompetence, and inadequacy as they compare themselves to other users. A recent study found that college-aged Facebook users felt worse about themselves after spending time on the social network site. Seeing images and content that leads them to believe others have “perfect” lives or bodies, some adolescent girls and young women feel they don’t measure up. Unrealistic Weight Loss Goals: Images shared on Facebook and other social networks have the potential to lead to the development of unattainable goals regarding body shape and weight loss. For example, a thigh gap isn’t attainable if a teen girl or young woman has slim hips that don’t allow her thighs to be far enough apart to create the now-famous space. Their bone structure and body type prevents many young females from reaching their social media-influenced goals in a healthy way. Constant Pressure: Any parent with a teen already understands that one of the challenges of social media is its ubiquitous presence – it’s always there, not to mention readily accessible via PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Today’s vulnerable teen girls and adult women are constantly bombarded with online images of unreachable – and often downright absurd – physical ideals.

Protecting Girls & Young Women

Social media use is only one potential contributing factor to eating disorders. Parents, however, can take action to protect adolescent girls and young women from being negatively influenced by unhealthy and unrealistic body images. For example, the researchers in the Israeli Facebook study uncovered a factor that seemed to protect teen social media users from developing eating disorders. Girls with parents who knew what their daughter was doing online and discussed online activities with them seemed to have a lower risk of eating disorders. Conversely, girls with parents who were uninvolved with their online exposure were more likely to have negative body images and eating disorders [2].

If you’re a parent, here’s how to get involved:

Start a conversation about body image and social media. Discuss how the images your impressionable daughter sees online don’t necessarily reflect behavior that’s healthy or normal. For instance, a girl with a certain body shape may never be able to achieve a thigh gap or bikini bridge. It’s also important to let your daughter know that what she sees online doesn’t always reflect reality. Images are easily altered to make models seem thinner and more ideal. Be alert for signs of an eating disorder. While there are many potential red flags when it comes to eating disorders, some common signs include:

  • Preoccupation with body image and/or food
  • Fear of gaining weight
  • Refusal to eat in front of others
  • Irregular or absent periods
  • Heavy use of breath fresheners or mouthwash
  • Sudden fluctuations in weight
  • Constipation and/or heavy use of laxatives

If you’re concerned that social media use is already having a negative impact on your daughter’s body image or eating behaviors, take action. Start a conversation with her about the images on social media. If you notice signs of an eating disorder, contact a mental health professional regarding an evaluation. Early intervention is crucial for overcoming these destructive and potentially life-threatening psychiatric disorders.  

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