The Connection Between Social Media and Eating Disorders Among College Students

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One in 5 women and 1 in 7 men will experience an eating disorder by age 40. Eating disorders are more common among teens and college students, leading many to wonder if social media is to blame.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the Rider University Online Bachelor of Science in Allied Health Services program.

How social media can fuel the chances of eating disorders among young adults in college-age settings.

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The Rise of Social Media and Eating Disorders

Nine in 10 teens ages 13 to 17 have used social media, with 75% having at least one active social media profile. Access to social media exposes teens and young adults to unrealistic ideals of body image, increasing their likelihood of developing an eating disorder.

Social Media Use Among Teens and College Students

Boys and girls ages 13 to 17 use Instagram (the most popular platform) and Twitter (the least popular platform) in relatively equal measure. More boys use Facebook and YouTube and more girls use Snapchat.

90% of young adults ages 18 to 24 use YouTube, and roughly three-fourths of that age group use Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. 44% of young adults in the demographic utilize Twitter.

3 Most Common Eating Disorders: Prevalence, Causes and Symptoms

Eight million Americans have an eating disorder, a figure that includes 7 million women. Studies show 1 in 20 American women have anorexia, and between 2 and 3 in 100 American women have bulimia. Studies also show binge eating affects up to 3.5% of females and 2% of males in the U.S., and 10-20% of female college students and 4-10% of male college students suffer from an eating disorder. There are numerous potential causes of eating disorders. These include perceived pressures to be thin, brain structure and biology and genetics.

There are different symptoms associated with various eating disorders. For example, the symptoms of anorexia nervosa include very restricted eating habits, a distorted view of one’s body, a heavy influence of body weight or perceived body image on self-esteem and obsessive-compulsive symptoms, such as difficulty eating in public. These symptoms could stem from two different types of anorexia: restricting, which involves excessive eating or dieting; and binge eating and purging.

The symptoms of bulimia nervosa include recurrent episodes of binge eating to the point of being painfully full or feeling unable to stop eating or control how much food is consumed during a binge session. Binges can be followed by various purging attempts such as forced vomiting, fasting or laxatives.

Sometimes, the symptoms of binge eating disorders aren’t accompanied by purging behaviors. Other symptoms of binge eating disorder include secretly eating large amount of food rapidly until uncomfortably full and feelings of shame, disgust or guilt when recalling binge eating episodes.

The Underlying Cause of Eating Disorders

Though social media does play a role in the development of eating disorders, other factors can also lead college students to develop unhealthy eating habits.

How Eating Disorders Develop Among College Students

Students who received support from parents during high school may struggle to find their footage in college. Therefore, eating disorders may develop out of a need to feel control over a stressful environment through food restriction, excessive exercise or unhealthy focus on body weight. Eating disorders may also emerge if college students have underlying anxiety or another mental illness and are in a social environment that emphasizes a thin body ideal.

As children, students may have struggled with perfectionism or felt terrible about themselves when activities didn’t go as planned. This is coupled with the college environment, which could enable eating disorders with all-you-can-eat dining halls, unscheduled, unhealthy eating and late-night fast food.

Disordered Eating vs. Eating Disorder

There is a distinction between disordered eating and an eating disorder. Disordered eating may include things like fad dieting, “clean” and restrictive eating or sever over-exercising. Studies indicate that 35% of “normal” dieters go on to exhibit unhealthy dieting behavior. However, studies also indicate that 20% to 25% of these dieters develop partial- or full-syndrome eating disorders.

An eating disorder is sustained over time, dangerous, all-consuming and unmanageable. For example, this may result in behaviors like declining a party invitation due to fear of eating too much, refusing to go to the beach or refusing to wear a bathing suit.

Social Media and Eating Disorders: Causation or Correlation?

Studies have shown a significant connection between social media and eating disorders in young adults, indicating an urgent need for prevention and intervention.

The Social Media Connection

The results of a study of 1,765 young adults ages 19 to 32 indicated a strong and consistent association between social media use and eating concerns. An analysis of anorexia-related videos on YouTube found that one-third of the videos could be classified as “pro-anorexia.” Studies have also found that maladaptive use of Facebook, such as comparing oneself with others, links to greater disordered eating and body dissatisfaction in college women. Additionally, studies indicate non-maladaptive use of Facebook may be associated with body image concerns, and social media users may find groups that promote eating disorders.

Fortunately, there are several resources struggling individuals can turn to for help with eating disorders. These resources, such as National Eating Disorder Association, Eating Disorder Hope and ANAD, offer a wide range of support tools such as treatment centers, support groups or telephone helplines.

A Somber Assessment

Though eating disorders have many underlying causes, research indicates that social media plays a role in supporting unrealistic views of body image and may increase users’ likelihood of developing unhealthy eating habits.