In the last ten years the world as we know it has changed to a great extent: Facebook was dethroned and Instagram was announced the new ruler, nurseries are using tablet devices to assist pre-primary children in learning, government bodies are using Twitter to communicate with the public and we are moving to an age where 5G internet will soon be the norm. And these are just the tip of the iceberg.
The world is slowly moving online and as with every cultural shift, it has its share of concerns. It is naïve to claim that social media is causing individuals to take on diet trends which
ultimately result in eating disorders because there is no singular cause for anything in this world. The pressure to look a certain way has been present throughout history—however, the way this message is communicated and is filtered down to individuals has significantly been impacted by social media.
A large component of social media involves information sharing- however the messages directly or indirectly communicated via social media have a strong impact. For example, a conglomerate may heavily advertise a weight loss drug but this would not have as big an influence over people if the lean/thin body-type was not celebrated and validated by society.
The physical body is extremely personal and it is how the world identifies us—a large part of first impressions. Many social media platforms capitalise on this, especially dating platforms. In the virtual world where communication is secondary, it is not surprising that many feel stressed to look and be perceived a certain way. The virtual world also makes their money through advertisements- often these adverts are not reviewed and many products which send out harmful messages and stereotypes are openly promoted. For example, fair and lovely creams, diet pills and steroids to build muscles. Regardless of gender social media constantly sends the message that how you look is important and what look is valued is decided by society and exploited by social media. Unfortunately, current notions of beauty are perpetuated by western society, this leaves little room for diversity and acceptance of the same. This has a serious negative impact of the individuals who genetically are different.
The way the world sees us impacts how we see ourselves. Social media is a complex man-made creation which connects us on a global level but sometimes isolates us at an immediate inter-personal level with the people around us. Individuals with Eating Disorders struggle with how their bodies look and find it difficult to remember that we are not just our physical bodies we are the sum of our physical, emotional and cognitive selves. So when an individual with an Eating Disorder sees size zero models being celebrated the unhelpful thoughts surrounding body image are reinforced and to some extent validated. Similarly, on social media platforms approval is displayed via “likes, emojis or GIFs" and the lack of these trigger people with concerns and results in an increase in symptomology. While there are many to spread love and positivity on social media there are equal numbers of people to spread hate. Unfortunately, due to the impersonal nature of social media, people are empowered to say things they normally wouldn’t by hiding behind anonymity where people forget the impact of their words and thus the vulnerable become victims.
As we have evolved as a society we have integrated social media into our communication. We have effectively merged the virtual world and the real world and the two often have a domino effect on each other. Social media at some levels provides too much information, too much connectivity and the result is a vulnerable person can be easily influenced or triggered. Mental health concerns like Eating Disorders have elements of genetic and psycho-social pre-dispositions but those combined with social media can definitely manifest as Eating Disorders.
It is our job as a socially conscious society to protect the vulnerable and we need to start taking active steps to curb the content on social media but more importantly we must start educating and spreading awareness about the negatives and positives of social media. With information comes power and with power comes the ability to make a change.
Tanya Vasunia is a psychologist and leads clinical collaborations at MpowerMinds.