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Eating Disorders and Social Media

Written by Carly Waldman, WVU Dining Services intern

Social Media's Impact

Social media is a huge part of our society and daily lives in today’s culture and thus has a substantial impact on our behaviors and thoughts. Around 82% of people in the United States have at least one social networking profile, not to mention the 2% increase from the previous year. This likely means that social media usage will continue to increase 1. College students spend an average of two hours or more each day on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok and more.

Most social media platforms allow people to share images, comment on posts, stay connected as well as promote clothes and countless products. But how does this daily usage impact us? Social media does have a handful of positives and benefits but research suggests that it can also affect mental health and how individuals perceive themselves 2.

The link between social media and body image presents itself in society today since everything we see on social media is not always real, with editing and image altering taking place 40% percent of the time 8. That’s almost half of all social media posts being altered to fit what we believe to be the “societal standard!” The concept of body image describes how an individual perceives, experiences and feels about one's own body. Body image reflects social constructs, which are shaped by culture and norms.

Since social media plays a large role in our culture and society, there have been many misconceptions among both body image and social media 3. Many edited images exist on all of our social media accounts whether we realize it or not. Social media allows you to share a version of yourself that is idealized, but it is sometimes difficult to determine what is actually true. When people edit images, it creates unrealistic standards for appearance since it misconstrues what diverse bodies people look like.

The internalization of ideals and social comparisons are the two main mechanisms that affect the perception of one's body image 3. Both social comparison and internalization of ideas are instrumental in developing body dissatisfaction. People who compare appearance to others that are considered to be attractive (by societies stereotypical standard) are more likely to be dissatisfied with their body image and increase the risk of developing an eating disorder 4.

When we see “perfect” bodies on social media, this allows us to believe this is normal and most acceptable. Unfortunately, images like this that we see on social media can make us believe that our bodies are not as acceptable by comparison, which then leaves a negative impact on our body image. This negative impact on our body image can cause an individual to feel isolated and can lead to harmful beliefs or behaviors.

A study that looked at Facebook and young women’s body image concerns found that using Facebook as a young woman can increase the likelihood of comparing themselves to others. Spending more time on social media is associated with poorer body image 5. Those who have current body image concerns use social media to find positive or negative feedback. Research shows that greater social media use is associated with an increased risk of developing eating disorders 6.

Additionally, a study that focuses on Orthorexia Nervosa prevalence and Instagram use found that the healthy eating community on this social media platform has a high prevalence of orthorexia symptoms. Orthorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder that involves an obsession with healthy eating. The higher Instagram usage has indicated a link to increased symptoms of orthorexia 7.

While the evidence looking at social media’s impact on male body image is lacking, there is evidenced to support an increase in male body dissatisfaction related to social media usage. The desire for muscularity and social media’s influence on body dissatisfaction is connected to increased risk for depression and negative eating pathology in males 9. While eating disorder risk for transgender individuals is exponentially higher compared to cisgender male and females, there is no substantial data looking at social media’s impact on body image perceptions for transgender individuals. Nevertheless, it is likely the impacts of social media influence transgender individuals similarly, if not more when comparing eating disorder prevalence (but let this be a call to action for research in this area!).

Tips for Reducing Social Media's Negative Impact on Mental Health

So now that we know that social media can negatively affect our body image and can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder, how can we avoid this? As a response to all the negative messages about body image, a few people and platforms have been working to make a positive impact through social media. The body positivity community on social media is growing and promoting the idea that all bodies are normal and accepted in society. By following platforms that promote body positivity, you can improve your relationship with food and appearance and reduce feelings of inadequacy.

We can also identify the types of posts that may negatively impact our body image. We can do this by:

  1. Noticing when you see a post that causes you to either get a pit in your stomach or start to feel negative thoughts. Tuning in to an emotional/physical reaction to social media can be helpful in regulating your emotions effectively.
  2. Identifying the post that makes you feel negative. Is it an influencer in minimal clothing and with the “perfect body”? A before and after picture from the latest nutritional supplement? Or a decadent meal or dessert?
  3. When we identify what triggers our negative body thoughts, we can then try to reduce the exposure to this trigger.

Identifying people or accounts that you currently follow that you believe are not the best for your mental health simply unfollow them, restrict the account or mute their posts. Be mindful of who you follow in order to protect your mental health! If intrusive thoughts keep pushing through on a daily basis reach out for support by talking to WVU’s dietitian, our counseling services or join an on-campus program that supports your goals and needs.

Try reducing the amount of time you spend on social media and then use that time you would have spent scrolling through social media to instead, journal, read, exercise or do something that makes you feel good.


  1. Social Media Usage in U.S. Available online: (accessed on 17 January 2022).
  2. Karim, F.; Oyewande, A.A.; Abdalla, L.F.; Chaudhry Ehsanullah, R.; Khan, S. Social Media Use and Its Connection to Mental Health: A Systematic Review. Cureus 12, e8627, doi:10.7759/cureus.8627.
  3. Jiotsa, B.; Naccache, B.; Duval, M.; Rocher, B.; Grall-Bronnec, M. Social Media Use and Body Image Disorders: Association between Frequency of Comparing One’s Own Physical Appearance to That of People Being Followed on Social Media and Body Dissatisfaction and Drive for Thinness. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public. Health 2021, 18, 2880, doi:10.3390/ijerph18062880.
  4. Corning, A.F.; Krumm, A.J.; Smitham, L.A. Differential Social Comparison Processes in Women with and without Eating Disorder Symptoms. J. Couns. Psychol. 2006, 53, 338–349, doi:10.1037/0022-0167.53.3.338.
  5. Fardouly, J.; Diedrichs, P.C.; Vartanian, L.R.; Halliwell, E. Social Comparisons on Social Media: THE Impact of Facebook on Young Women’s Body Image Concerns and Mood. Body Image 2015, 13, doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2014.12.002.
  6. Sidani, J.E.; Shensa, A.; Hoffman, B.; Hanmer, J.; Primack, B.A. The Association between Social Media Use and Eating Concerns among U.S. Young Adults. J. Acad. Nutr. Diet. 2016, 116, 1465–1472, doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.03.021.
  7. Turner, P.G.; Lefevre, C.E. Instagram Use Is Linked to Increased Symptoms of Orthorexia Nervosa. Eat. Weight Disord. EWD 2017, 22, 277–284, doi:10.1007/s40519-017-0364-2.
  8. Agrawal, H.; Agrawal, S. Impact of Social Media and Photo-Editing Practice on Seeking Cosmetic Dermatology Care. Clin. Cosmet. Investig. Dermatol. 2021, 14, 1377–1385, doi:10.2147/CCID.S322859.
  9. Gültzow, T., Guidry, J.P., Schneider, F., & Hoving, C. (2020). Male body image portrayals on instagram. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 281-289.