Do Social Networks Worsen Bulimia and Anorexia?

The most common eating disorders (ED) are bulimia and anorexia nervosa. These conditions particularly affect adolescents and young adults, since they are a population that is more susceptible to external patterns.
Do Social Networks Worsen Bulimia and Anorexia?
Maryel Alvarado Nieto

Written and verified by the doctor Maryel Alvarado Nieto.

Last update: 17 February, 2023

Some researchers are trying to establish whether the use of social networks (RRSS) leads to an increased risk of bulimia and anorexia.

In general terms, people with anorexia nervosa restrict their diet in order to stay slim. In bulimia, on the other hand, patients resort to behaviors that attempt to compensate for binge eating.

Although there are variations in the behaviors of both disorders, the pattern revolves around the incessant fear of gaining weight. So, can the body models shown on social networks be able to promote bulimia and anorexia? We’ll take a closer look here.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are a series of behavioral disturbances related to eating that cause deterioration of health, both for the patient and their environment. Anorexia and bulimia are diseases and should not be considered lifestyles.

However, it’s known that there are certain virtual spaces that promote the behaviors of these disorders as an acceptable way of living. So-called influencers even propose some harmful practices that threaten their well-being to their followers.

Risk factors for anorexia and bulimia

Most people who develop anorexia and bulimia are young women. They usually belong to industrialized societies.

A simplistic view of this situation would blame the cultural perception that a thin body is an ideal of beauty. However, both anorexia and bulimia are disorders with a multifactorial origin, which could include the involvement of social networks.

There are individual factors that increase the chances of a person developing some type of eating disorder. And although interaction with their environment has an important influence, the vulnerability of these patients depends on traits that are specific to their personalities.

Among the risk factors associated with eating disorders are the following:

  • Depression
  • Fear of rejection
  • Low self-esteem and insecurity
  • Perfectionist and obsessive traits
  • Dissatisfaction with body appearance
  • A need for acceptance by others
  • Longing to belong to a social group
  • A lack of healthy eating habits
Mujer con anorexia por las redes sociales.
Although anorexia and bulimia are different, both are considered eating disorders.

The initiators of eating disorder promotion on social networks

There’s a type of web portal that often uses fictitious names to refer to anorexia and bulimia. These spaces attempt to promote the altered eating patterns of these disorders and the practices associated with them as a way of life.

Similarly, they suggest the idea that pathological slenderness is synonymous with beauty. Therefore, the main objective would be weight loss.

Thus, these spaces could serve as a predisposing factor in people vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. In addition, it’s common for these sites to discourage their users to keep their self-harming behavior hidden, in order to avoid any detection that could imply needing help from their real environment.

The discovery of this type of page generated the persecution, denunciation, and closure of these sites in some countries – especially since most of those accessing them were minors.

However, the attempt to censor the harmful content offered by members of the self-proclaimed group Anorexic Nation is far from disappearing, thanks to the advent and evolution of social networks.

Risk promoters on the Internet

The current configuration of various social networks attempts to block content that incites the adoption of habits associated with bulimia and anorexia. Similarly, some RRSS even display warning messages for those seeking this type of information, inviting them to visit sites dedicated to preventing eating disorders.

However, the presence of certain spaces that encourage eating disorders have been able to evade these policies.

It’s worth clarifying that these same social networks design technologies that allow users to modify the images they are going to share. The purpose of these tools is to eliminate bodily imperfections, producing photographs that fit within the cultural parameters of what is considered aesthetic.

So the attempt to protect vulnerable people from these pages is overshadowed by the reinforcement of the beauty ideal – a very harmful paradox.

What do the experts think?

Several groups of researchers have tried to find out whether the use of social networks by vulnerable people can trigger an eating disorder. This is especially because some authors and scientific societies claim that the prevalence of anorexia and bulimia has increased in recent years.

On the other hand, censorship of sites promoting these disorders has not shown a protective effect. In fact, although there was a massive removal of such virtual spaces, the prevalence of anorexia and bulimia continued to increase.

Thus, control of Internet content doesn’t seem to be a useful method to prevent the emergence of eating disorders. However, it’s clear that such groups still persist on social networks.

Mujer con bulimia por las redes sociales.
The prevalence of eating disorders is increasing. Therefore, it’s clear that preventive measures are not enough.

The relationship between anorexia, bulimia, and social networks: Fact or fiction?

Since the end of the last century, the media has been proposed as a risk factor for the development of eating disorders because it promotes the idea that extreme thinness is synonymous with beauty and social success. However, little has changed in relation to the types of advertisements that are exposed, despite the fact that they’re often edited.

Many of the models idealized in advertising have admitted to suffering from an eating disorder.

Social networks are a new form of communication, which additionally, allow the interaction of its users. It is for this reason that experts consider that content shared on social networks can serve as a source of negative comparison.

This, in a vulnerable person, creates a feedback loop of body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. This makes excessive use of social networks a risk factor for the development of an eating disorder.

How to prevent bulimia and anorexia on social networks

A myriad of recommendations has emerged to avoid continuous exposure of susceptible individuals to this type of content. However, there’s no universal consensus among mental health professionals in this regard.

What they do agree on is that the influence of the environment is only a conditioning factor. Therefore, it shouldn’t be the only thing we focus on when it comes to prevention.

Therefore, it’s wiser to emphasize the need to build self-esteem in children, providing them with security and acceptance of their individual characteristics in their development. This will be much more effective than trying to control the content available in the wide (and almost infinite) world of social networks.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.