Mental Health

Social Media and Eating Disorders

With over a billion active users, TikTok has quickly become the place that a new generation of young people turn for news and information. Google Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan recently shared that in Google’s studies, “Almost 40% of young people don’t turn [for information] to Google Maps or Search. They go to TikTok or Instagram.” When it comes to advice for healthy living, that trend can turn dangerous. It’s time to ask how social media can play a role in popularizing disordered eating.

Restrictive eating is trending

 “We try to encourage people that all foods are okay in moderation,” says Dr. Terri Griffith, a psychologist at Sheppard Pratt’s Center for Eating Disorders. “There are a lot of ‘health’ trends that gain popularity, but many of them can unintentionally promoting disordered eating.”

A popular TikTok trend suggests swapping bread for a bell pepper when making a sandwich or swapping an apple for a pepper when craving something sweet. Healthy eating can start with small swaps like trading candy for fruit, but these extreme and unnecessary trades can easily spiral for those susceptible to eating disorders. 

Social media influencers are often advocating extreme eating habits via video trends like “what I eat in a day,” or advertising quick fixes for weight loss through trendy diets like “one meal a day,” “eating clean,” intermittent fasting, and more. “The people promoting these trends are usually not specialists of nutrition, like Registered Dieticians, and often don’t provide credible  evidence for their claims,” Dr. Griffith says. “They usually don’t have any training on what a body needs to be healthy..”The ever-growing number of health and fitness influencers has no fact-checking system. The state of Texas recently sued influencer Brittany Dawn for misleading customers of her nutrition and fitness programs. Most of the time, followers cannot verify whether an influencer actually has any qualifications to offer health services. 

Designed to drag you down the rabbit hole

Social messaging comes at us from all corners: from tv and magazines to social media platforms. It often sends this same message: “If you want to be accepted, look like this. To look like this, restrict your intake or over-exercise.” Dr. Griffith warns us that social media makes it easier than ever for young people to get this messaging—and get pulled in by the nature of the platforms themselves. “The very algorithm that drives social media encourages you to keep going deeper,” she says. “Searching for ‘healthy lifestyle’ can lead you down a dark path to orthorexic content or other disordered eating content.” 

Orthorexia, an obsession with “clean eating,” is a newly recognized eating disorder where an individual is extremely focused on healthy eating. They will often have excessive restrictions on their diet, Dr. Griffith says, avoiding preservatives, additives, seasonings or dressings, anything non-organic, store-bought, or processed. It’s an easily idealized disorder in a world where influencers are frequently demonizing entire food groups.

Eating disorders are also extremely competitive. “This kind of content can affect those who suffer from eating disorders in a uniquely powerful way, as they may feel the need to eat less or eat differently due to these videos,” Dr. Griffith says. “Because an eating disorder is rarely satisfied, people can have a hard time moderating or knowing if what they are doing has become out of control.”

Risk factors 

Anyone is at risk for developing an eating disorder, but some are at a higher risk due to biological, psychological, and social factors. “You may have a genetic predisposition that is triggered by these social media trends,” Dr. Griffith says. “You may be more at risk if you have been bullied or have body image concerns. Young people are incredibly impressionable. 

 If you’re a parent, Dr. Griffith says it is important to have a conversation about what your kids are viewing and why. Be involved and monitor what your children and teens are internalizing. Make sure they know they can come to you with anything they don’t understand or want to discuss further. “Look for credible information and supportive resources from the National Eating Disorders Association, The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, or the National Institute of Health,” Dr. Griffith says. She also suggests the book Life Without Ed

Because of the shame associated with eating disorders, people of all ages suffer in silence. If you suspect your eating habits may be problematic, walk in to one of our Psychiatric Urgent Care locations or connect with a Sheppard Pratt Care Navigator by calling 410-938-5000. Help is here, and you are worth it.

Meet the Expert

  • Terri Griffith, PsyD

    Psychologist, The Retreat by Sheppard Pratt; Clinical Coordinator, The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt
    Eating Disorders