The Thin Ideal: Social Media's Dangerous Influence on Body Image and Eating Disorders


Governments worldwide have long criticised social media platforms for failing to address content that is dangerous and contributes to mental health crisis among children and adolescents. Various issues need careful and responsible actions from these big tech titans. Issues impacting children negatively range from online harassment, bullying, self-harm content, to content related to eating disorder in a bid to have a thin and skinny body.

In April 2022, Fairplay released a report titled,' Designing for Disorder: Instagram's Pro-eating Disorder Bubble', which explains the platform's active promotion of harmful eating disorders or body issues content, which is further amplified by its recommendation algorithm. It has been found that these algorithm-based social media platforms are wreaking havoc on the mental health and overall health of young people. Several studies prove a correlation between social media-promoted self-harm content and suicides by adolescents.

It is almost a year since that former Facebook employee leaked an internal report of Facebook and made eye-opening revelations about harmful content, including eating disorder-related content, being amplified by Instagram and Facebook. The leaked Facebook papers revealed that one in every three teenage girls said Instagram worsened their body image issues.


How Social Media Fuels the Body Image Insecurity and the Rise of Eating Disorders?

Photos and videos apps like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and TikTok are very popular among the young people. They influence their decision and daily life to a great extent. Adolescents have an inaccurate perception of the ideal body's size and weight and give too much importance to how they are perceived online. Through its algorithms, social media further fuels this belief and promotes eating disorders among adolescents in the pursuit of thinness, where the young generation equates it with being healthier and more beautiful. YouTube and Snapchat after Instagram are the two most popular social media platforms among young people. YouTube gives a platform to various influencers who talk about weight loss and supplementing meals with supplements. Similarly, Snapchat allows forming group chats where participants can talk privately to pursue eating disorder behaviours. Social Media plays a crucial role in promoting body dysmorphia. For example, Snapchat dysmorphia, where children and adolescents use beauty filters or filters to look fair and thin to alter their images and share altered digital images with others.

Such image consciousness online also has real life consequences. For instance, take up anorexia, one of the most common forms of eating disorder. Anorexia is also called anorexia nervosa, can be a life-threatening eating disorder. It includes an unhealthy low body weight, intense fear of gaining weight, and a view of weight and shape that is not realistic. Anorexia often involves using extreme efforts to control weight and shape, which often seriously interfere with health and daily life.# It involves many methods to lose weight, like limiting calorie intake, cutting down on certain types of foods, using laxatives, vomiting after eating, which can cause several health issues affecting physical as well as mental health. Eating disorders have many consequences, like nutritional deficiency and health-related issues like cardiac arrest.

Lack of Enforcement by Social Media Platforms

Social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and many other platforms in their guidelines mention that they do not allow glorifying eating disorder content; for instance, Instagram, under its community guidelines, mentions that:-

Self-Injury – We do not allow glorification or encouragement of self-injury, including eating disorders. We do allow content that references self-injury and eating disorders if it is for the purpose of creating awareness or signposting support.

But despite this, when you search for #thininspiration, it shows a warning but strangely gives two options, (a) Get support and (b) See results anyways. When clicked on 'see results anyway,' it shows content related to the #thininspiration, #thinzpo #slimmingworld #skinny #slim and many more Instagram accounts promoting such content. On Instagram and other social media platforms, a plethora of harmful trends easily take off, promoting weight loss and diet plans, for example, 'A4 Challenges' (to see if you are thinner than an A4 paper). These apps use creative hashtags and abbreviations to bypass algorithms encouraging young people to adopt low-calorie diets and fast.

The shocking reality is that according to Fairplay's report, children as young as 9 to 10 are following three or more eating disorder accounts, with the median age being 19. Interestingly, according to their Terms and Conditions, social media platforms do not allow children below 13 years to sign up for their platform. Still, many reports suggest that children under 13 sign up for their platform by lying about their age.

Big Techs Must Prioritize Safety Over Profits

Big techs cannot shed their responsibility of removing harmful content, especially the ones harmful for children and adolescents. Big tech's motive to monetise and earn profit from young people's insecurities can not be ignored, and there is a need to hold big techs accountable for the content they host and devilish algorithms which amplifies and recommend harmful content.

Eating disorders - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic