At least 9% of the U.S. population will experience some form of an eating disorder in their lifetime. And while the median age for bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa is currently 18, it’s no longer unheard of for younger people to experience body dysmorphia and eating disorders. In fact, 35-57% of adolescent girls have been reported to take part in unhealthy dieting, fasting, purging, and taking laxatives.
Furthermore, the UK’s National Health Service reported that 50% more under-20s have been hospitalized for an eating disorder in April 2020-April 2021 than in April 2019-April 2020. Is it possible that the rise of these disorders is caused by an increase in social media consumption due to the pandemic?
The majority of adolescents have spent most of their time indoors after Covid started. For most people, our lives are dominated by technology. We use it for leisure, work, and school. It’s like eating or drinking, and for the most part, we’ve come to accept it. But we often fail to realize how our own thoughts and perceptions are also heavily influenced by what we’re consuming through our own screens. Knowing this, it’s probably safe to assume that social media may have damaging effects on our impressionable youth.
The Romanticization of Anorexia on Social Media
Most people are unaware of the parts of Twitter that are outside of their reality tunnel. This is because the front pages of most social media platforms are catered to our own likes and saves. It works well in weeding out any topics or trends we don’t care about and it keeps us engaged – a win-win for both big tech and the consumer (or loss, depending on how you look at it). Because of the pandemic and lockdowns, it makes sense why teenagers are spending time curating their social media profiles to fit their interests and even find like-minded friends online. But what happens when they find themselves disordered, suddenly engaging in weight loss threads and “thinspo” posts on Twitter?
Pro-anorexia accounts online promote eating disorders and the behaviors that come with them. Also known as “pro-ana,” these groups have made a comeback on major platforms like TikTok, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. Though websites have made it a focus to moderate and limit the visibility of these accounts, finding pro-ana posts on Twitter is of no difficulty, and a growing number of users have joined what is now commonly known as “eating disorder Twitter” or “edtwt” for short.
The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself.
Plenty of the pro-ana users on edtwt are underage. They will typically post their age along with their BMI (body mass index) on their bios. Luckily, the majority of them stay anonymous. Still, the issue lies in teenagers engaging in posts that are fueling their disordered habits, even influencing those who may not have had an eating disorder in the first place to suddenly start making drastic dietary changes like fasting or purging.
There are also countless tweets on edtwt teaching young women how to starve themselves and successfully reach an underweight BMI. You can find photos of skinny women wrapping their fingers around their wrists, thighs, and arms. And recently, the online bullying on edtwt has grown, and even unwilling participants have found themselves in numerous “fatspo threads,” posts that include videos of plus-sized women to help motivate disordered users from eating and gaining weight.
These posts, when reported, do get suspended. But it’s nearly impossible for major platforms to track every account that’s promoting pro-ana behavior, and in the end, the responsibility lies in the guardian to make sure minors aren’t spending their time online finding ways to lose dangerous amounts of weight. This is why it’s important to keep watch and recognize the signs of eating disorders.
The Illusion of Control
Besides the influence of social media, it’s possible that the causes of eating disorders could be a byproduct of the subconscious feeling of needing to be in control. During the pandemic, many were restricted by lockdowns that cut off their in-person access to school, friends, activities, and extended family. Even after lockdowns in the U.S. ended, most teenagers are still living under the rules of their parents and are still in school, so they may feel powerless in some areas in their life where they lack authority or agency. And for those who are suffering from trauma, controlling your body can be a coping mechanism to create a sense of control in your life.
Hilde Bruch, a German psychiatrist, is known for her work in eating disorders. In her book The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa, she describes the case of Hazel, a young teenager, who deprived herself of food out of fear of growing up and losing her father’s approval. Hazel said, “When you are so unhappy you don't know how to accomplish anything, then to have control over your body becomes an extreme accomplishment. You make of your body your very own kingdom where you are the tyrant, the absolute dictator.”
You make of your body your very own kingdom where you are the tyrant, the absolute dictator.
Perhaps this is why eating disorders grew after lockdowns started to come into effect. Such an event seemed out of our control, and many people were left to turn to their devices when their social life was negatively affected. So not only were teens spending time alone indoors, but they also had to spend hours utilizing their front cameras on Zoom to communicate with others.
Ben Buchanan, a psychologist, says the following about Zoom: “One thing we know about the brains of people who have body dissatisfaction is that there are difficulties with the capacity to modulate attention. This plays out on Zoom, where the person might unintentionally find themselves looking at themselves rather than the other person in online meetings.”
Other Complications of Eating Disorders
The health consequences of eating disorders can be fatal. Anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of any mental disorder, and it makes sense as to why: you’re starving yourself of the nutrients your body requires in order to function properly, and prolonged starvation leads to organ damage and failure. In sudden deaths of anorexia patients, cardiovascular-related issues were commonly found to be the cause.
Anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of any mental disorder.
But the signs of malnourishment are typically easier to spot in disordered individuals, and learning the physical complications could be key in intervening. Some of these signs include brittle nails and hair, pale skin, yellow teeth, dark eye circles, wrinkles, and swollen salivary glands from constant purging.
Other signs include:
Change in attitude and behavior surrounding food, dieting, and weight loss
Extreme weight loss
Refusing to eat certain foods or food groups
Obsession with appearance
Excess picture taking of one’s body, taking progress pictures
Irregularities with menstrual cycles
Dry hair and brittle nails
Teeth discoloration or erosion from purging
Constantly being cold, wearing large jackets
Weakness and fatigue
Overconsumption of natural appetite suppressants (caffeine, nicotine)
The images on social media may seem innocent and harmless, but it’s possible that it’s causing more psychological damage than we realize, especially on our youth. They’re absorbing countless influential media that shape their thoughts and behavior. It’s important that we get to know what they’re going through on a deep level, so as to try and intervene when necessary to ensure their health and safety.
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