Eating disorders and the internet
Beat is the UK’s leading charity supporting people who are affected by eating disorders or having difficulties with food, weight and shape. While most of those affected are young women and girls, 10 per cent of sufferers are thought to be male. 
The organisation aims to deal with eating disorders in three main ways:
- Challenging the stereotypes and stigma faced by people with eating disorders.
- Campaigning for better services and treatment.
- Providing information, support encouragement to sufferers seeking recovery.
Rebecca Field, head of communications at Beat, speaks to us about the relationship between the internet, eating disorders and body image, and talks about how parents can help.
More young people are being admitted to hospital because of eating disorders . The number has almost doubled in three years. Is this to do with the internet?
It’s difficult to be sure about the cause of this rise. It could be that more people are coming forward because there’s more awareness. The prevalence of eating disorders could be increasing. Or outpatient care could be getting worse, meaning that people aren’t getting enough treatment and so are reaching a stage where they require hospitalisation.
Do media images depicting ‘the perfect body’ contribute to the development of an eating disorder?
For women, for example, the media portrays only one body type as the ideal – the slender, thin woman with the measurements of a catwalk model. This body is unachievable for most people. It would be fantastic if the media showed a greater variety of shapes and sizes, more accurately reflecting the people we see around us day to day.
Many factors lead to the development of an eating disorder. Recently there has been evidence to suggest that eating problems have more to do with biology than we previously thought – so someone who is genetically more inclined towards an eating disorder may find that their problem is triggered by an environmental factor (like seeing certain images on a regular basis).
There is no direct causal link between seeing images and developing an eating disorder but some of the people we speak to believe such images were a trigger. Idealised images of the perfect body can be toxic to certain people and may exacerbate an underlying problem.
Do images online have a different effect to images in print?
The problem with online images is their prevalence. In the mobile digital age they are everywhere, all the time, so they can more effectively pervade a young person’s life.
Can social media help trigger eating disorders?
Studies have found that comparing your appearance to that of others can create dissatisfaction. The image-centric nature of Facebook can encourage repeated and compulsive scrutinising of your own and others’ body shapes  and could potentially be linked to depressive symptoms. 
Research has also found that girls who spend the most time on photo-related activities on Facebook are more likely to internalise a thin ideal. They are more likely to succumb to self-objectification, to be dissatisfied with their weight and to want to become thin. There is a chicken-and-egg effect here and the researchers couldn’t determine whether girls who were already concerned about their appearance were drawn to looking at photos on Facebook, or whether it was the images that triggered their anxiety about their body image.
Either way, it seems likely that images of perfection may exacerbate the way girls think about their appearance. 
On social media platforms there is a risk of people basing their sense of self-worth on how many comments and likes they get. Young people tend to curate a certain image of themselves to show to the world, consciously de-tagging images they don’t like. They may also spend a lot of time looking at friends’ images and commenting on how nice they look in the hope of receiving similar comments in return. This emphasis on how someone looks rather than what they’re doing with their life is not particularly healthy and can increase anxiety and lead to a negative body image, both risk factors for developing an eating disorder.
Spaces on the web that are pro-anorexia or that promote extreme thinness as an ideal have been cited as a potential cause for eating disorders. How much of an effect do they actually have on young people?
These sites can trigger disordered thoughts about eating. Hashtags on Twitter and Instagram that promote extreme thinness, as well as pro-anorexia sites or blogs, are particularly harmful for those with anorexia, as sufferers tend to be very competitive with themselves and others. Seeing others’ pictures can encourage someone with anorexia to keep lowering their target weight.
We have campaigned to stop the media from publishing precise details of people’s weight because sufferers can fixate on these numbers and alter their goals. This is particularly dangerous when a person whose healthy BMI weight is higher because they’re taller attempts to reach the weight of an extremely thin person who is several inches shorter.
What can you do to lessen the effects of any of these harmful online spaces, whether it’s Facebook or a pro-anorexia blog?
A campaign to ban a hashtag or a site won’t stop harmful behaviour, as people will just find a new word or establish a new website.
The best way to prevent these sites from having an effect on a young person is by focusing on building resilience and actively encouraging a positive attitude towards body image and weight. The following tips may help:
- share family meals, making eating together a social occasion at which everyone gets a chance to chat about their day. This helps children to see eating as a positive experience
- praise all aspects of a young person, not just their looks. Shift the emphasis away from appearance and comment more on their behaviour – perhaps they have been kind, helpful or polite?
If your child is showing signs of an eating disorder, it’s imperative to seek help from your GP. For more information and advice, have a look at our other articles, including treatment for their eating disorder.
Call Beat for support on their Helpline 0345 634 1414, and for younger people, their Youthline 0345 634 765. Lines are open 2pm-4pm, Monday to Friday.