Unrealistic images and comparison on social media can promote eating disorders. Learn the relationships between social media, body image and self-esteem.

Social media is a huge part of modern life and can have a significant impact on an individual’s thoughts and behavior. A constant barrage of unrealistic images, advertisements and messages can impact physical and mental health.

Some types of social media have been used to share images and messages that promote disordered eating. Edited images and dieting promotions from friends, family or peers can lead to low self-esteem, extreme food restriction and an unhealthy relationship with food and appearance.

It’s common to share an idealized version of yourself on social media, but it can be hard to tell what is real versus heavily edited. Unrealistic standards for appearance can worsen existing eating disorders or trigger the start of a new eating disorder.

Social media and its effects on eating disorders are well-studied. Knowing the results of the research can help people understand the risks and how to protect against them.

Seeing constant examples of “perfect” bodies on social media can promote the message that these bodies are normal and most acceptable. These images can make people feel as though their bodies are less acceptable by comparison and have a negative impact on body image.

Social media can encourage competition and comparison that impacts how people view their own bodies. Viewing beautifully edited pictures can make people feel like their lives, bodies or experiences are less valuable compared to others.

This feeling can be isolating or damaging and can contribute to body image concerns and harmful beliefs or behaviors. Social media has contributed to eating disorders and the statistics surrounding these harmful messages are concerning.

For example, research has shown that using Facebook can increase experience related concerns, particularly for people more likely to compare themselves to others. Specific activities like uploading more photos or spending more time on social media are linked with poorer body image.

In some cases, people with existing concerns about their body might use social media to look for positive or negative feedback on appearance. Research has shown that high social media use is linked with greater odds of developing an eating disorder.

Negative Effects of Social Media on Self-Esteem

Not only can social media impact how people view and feel about their bodies, but it can also worsen a person’s self-esteem. Personal self-esteem relates to how worthy or valuable someone believes themselves to be. When someone’s body or life doesn’t match what they see online, it can lead to feeling worthless or inadequate.

Some of the negative effects of social media on self-esteem include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low-self esteem
  • Decreased life satisfaction

There are a few ways that social media affects self-esteem. For many people, social media can serve as an example of what life should look like, whether that is appearance, wealth or accomplishments. Self-esteem is harder hit when social media profiles contain information that promotes upwards comparison, like information about having lots of friends or a healthy lifestyle.

The negative effects of social media on self-esteem are particularly dangerous because they aren’t just limited to appearance. Feeling inadequate because of body shape or size can also contribute to lower self-worth in other areas of life. Feelings of worthlessness are linked with higher rates of depression and anxiety and can also contribute to unhealthy behaviors.

Pro-Ana Websites and Thinspiration

Some online content openly encourages and celebrates unhealthy relationships with food and bodies. These websites promote strict regimes, obsessions and self-punishment in the pursuit of weight loss or thinness. These websites often promote eating disorders and provide community and support for those with disordered eating.

While there’s been progress in calling out these websites and limiting their access, “pro-ana” or “thinspiration” websites are still popular. Many of these websites target young women who are particularly vulnerable to the social pressures of thinness and physical appearance.

Many websites or social media platforms now closely monitor this type of content.

How Social Media Can Have a Positive Impact on Eating Disorders

In response to the negative messages regarding body image and self-esteem on social media, many people and platforms have pushed back and moved to have a positive impact through social media.

There is now a growing community of body-positive social media content that promotes and advocates that all bodies are normal and acceptable. These messages can help reduce feelings of inadequacy and encourage healthy relationships with food and appearance.

Many of these websites or hashtags have been born out of the realization of the impact social media has on mental health. There are now online eating disorder awareness and support hashtags that serve to use social media as a way to reduce stigma, social pressures and encourage people to feel good about themselves. In this way, social media can work against comparison and appearance ideals.

Being mindful of who you friend or follow can help to protect your mental health. Reducing social media use or staying away altogether can be a helpful strategy while recovering from an eating disorder or other mental illness.

If you or a loved one struggle with an addiction that developed as a way to manage an eating disorder, contact The Recovery Village to speak with a representative about how professional substance use disorder treatment can help. Take the first step toward a healthier future, call today.

Thomas Christiansen
Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
Sarah Dash
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Sarah Dash, PHD
Dr. Sarah Dash is a postdoctoral research fellow based in Toronto. Sarah completed her PhD in Nutritional Psychiatry at the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in 2017. Read more

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Fardouly, Jasmine; et al. “Social Comparisons on Social Media: The […]e Concerns and Mood.” Body Image, 2015. Accessed September 19, 2019.

Sidani, Jaime; et al. “The Association between Social Media Use[…]ong US Young Adults.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2016. Accessed September 19, 2019.

Pantic, Igor. “Online social networking and mental health.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior and social networking, 2014. Accessed September 19, 2019.

Vogel, Erin A. “Social Comparison, Social Media, and Self-Esteem.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 2014. Accessed September 19, 2019.

Lin, Liu Yi; et al. “Association between social media use and[…]ong US young adults.” Depression and anxiety, 2016. Accessed September 19, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.