Can social media websites make eating disorders more problematic?

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An expert has carried out research to see whether or not social media is linked to a rise in eating disorders. Anna Lavis, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, described images of “sculpted, sucked-in and slimmed-down female bodies” on Facebook and Instagram as “deeply problematic.”

Figures from the past three years showed a significant increase in the number of young people admitted to hospital because of an eating disorder. Dr Lavis made a link between eating disorders and social networking websites, stating that women feel as though they “should look a certain way” in order to be accepted by society.

“Images of sculpted, sucked-in and slimmed down female bodies across Instagram and Facebook, for example, as well as in the news media, are deeply problematic,” she said.

“They give women of all ages the message that to be of value in contemporary British society they should look a certain way. And habitually, that way is thin. This society-wide obsession with the thinness and supposed perfection of female bodies is dangerous. It has the potential to define the boundaries of girls’ ambitions, limiting their sense of self to bodies alone.”

However, Dr Lavis added that it was too much of a “quick jump” to link the rise in eating disorders to social networking websites and said that it was “too simple” to say that online images could be a root cause of eating disorders.

“Recent qualitative studies have suggested that, to understand eating disorders, their causes and possible relationships with social media, it is imperative to listen to the stories of individuals themselves,” she said.

During her research, Dr Lavis found that rather than social media images causing people to develop an eating disorder, they instead motivate people who are already “in the grip of an eating disorder.”

Dr Lavis stated that the relationship between eating disorders and social media websites should perhaps be reconsidered.

“If thinness is not necessarily a goal of people with eating disorders, then looking at online images of thin people is not an underlying cause of those conditions. Rather, as research has suggested, this may be a way of motivating oneself to continue to self-starve when already in the grip of the illness,” she said.


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