If you’re reading this, you’re probably 18-20 years old and use social media every day.
Bear with me, I’m going to make one more assumption about you. At some point, while using social media — be it Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr — you’ve compared yourself to another person.
So what? Well, professionals say these sorts of comparisons can be detrimental to a person’s mental health — especially if that person is struggling with an eating disorder.
To care for your own well-being, it can be a good idea to take a break from social media. My advice? Go through every account you follow, and unfollow any that make you feel negative about yourself.
Let me hit you with some statistics real quick, and I promise they are not only relevant but also interesting. American adults spend more than 11 hours per day interacting with media, according to the first-quarter 2018 Nielsen Total Audience Report. More than 11 hours per day.
Imagine if you watched the same news broadcast company for 11 hours every day. Eventually, what you watch influences your point of view and opinions. The same goes for social media. Time spent scrolling through feeds and timelines can affect how we think and, eventually, how we see ourselves.
When I was living with anorexia, I abused social media. I searched eating-disorder-related hashtags and, with a tap of my finger, accessed an extensive showcase of harmful images. I saw girls on scales with torn, bleeding skin and “inspirational” quotes glamorizing starvation. Though some platforms provided options to avoid these kinds of content by clicking pop-ups like “Get Support,” they were a weak barrier against my eating disorder.
Eating disorder patients frequently use social media, specifically hashtag searches on Instagram, to find ways to become sicker, said Samantha DeCaro, the assistant clinical director at the Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, a treatment facility.
“When you have an eating disorder, you’re always searching for things that confirm those eating disorder beliefs,” DeCaro said. “That can be really dangerous.”
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about nutrition, what your measurements should be,” she added. “You develop this false sense of belonging, of connection, and that can further reinforce what you’re doing.”
Swiping between these horrific images and the smiling feeds of my friends further messed with my mind. My friends’ “beautiful” photos made me feel ugly and unworthy, and my dark searches offered ways to punish myself for that.
Lara Nalbandian, the coordinator of the Eating Disorders Unit at Tuttleman Counseling Services, has watched unhealthy relationships between body image and social media intertwine for years.
“We hear constantly in the clinical room, and in doing therapy, the influence it has on people’s body image and the way that we process media,” Nalbandian said.
The relationship between media and body image is not a new one. Women and men, particularly young women, have been comparing themselves to popular figures for decades, whether they be in magazines or television, Nalbandian said.
And processing visual information from social media can alter the brain’s reward system, Nalbandian added. Likes on social media can trigger a dopamine high, sometimes referred to as a dopamine seeking-reward loop, according to a 2018 article by psychologist Susan Weinschenk for Psychology Today. The absence of those likes can cause users to feel insecure.
In my own experience, I compared myself to people I saw on social media. When I received physical and chemical reactions to being “liked,” I chased them.
“With a simple hashtag, suddenly you are flooded with images that you can compare yourself to,” DeCaro said. “Because Instagram and other social media sites are primarily image-based content…comparing is yet another thing that can fuel the fire.”
Instead, smother the flames by practicing self-care. Regulate the images you expose yourself to and remind yourself those images are often not real. These images might be contrived, posed, Facetuned or edited images of someone, and they don’t represent the complete picture of a person’s life.
Take control of your feed, and only choose to see what brings you joy.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of hours per day American adults spend interacting with social media. They spend more than 11 hours each day.