Written by Sophie Conant
Social media opens up a whole world of options for connecting with people across the globe and has become an integral part of everyday life. In fact, it was found that nine out of ten 16-24 year olds in the European Union (EU) use some sort of social media (1).
Social media can impact our thoughts and behaviours beyond the screen. Various platforms have frequently been criticised for the damage they can have on self-esteem. Many of the posts that you might come across on social media showcase the highlights of people’s lives, leading us to feel a sense of dissatisfaction with our own. It is easy to believe that people are happier and more successful due to the fact that images posted are carefully selected and often retouched (2).
So, when it comes to self-esteem and recovery from an eating disorder, what impact does social media really have? Is the impact entirely negative, or is there potential for social media to act as a positive tool in recovery?
Social media and self-esteem
What we expose ourselves to on a daily basis can have a massive impact on the way we view ourselves. With as many as 71% of people admitting to using social media multiple times a day (3), the content we view on these platforms is going to have an impact on us.
Social media can create an illusion that people are mostly happy, successful, attractive or confident in themselves. Accounts usually capture the best moments of a person’s life, and frequently conceal the everyday struggles that we all face. Not only is this false reality demonstrated by celebrities and influencers, but also much closer to home, even in our own friendship and family circles.
Self-esteem is defined as how we value and perceive ourselves and is often based on our beliefs and opinions of ourselves as a person (4). Whilst a whole host of factors can contribute to lowering our self-esteem, the highlight reel of social media can have an impact as we compare ourselves to others.
Social media and body image
It is all too easy to slip into a state of comparison on social media. Certain body shapes and looks are prioritised by algorithms and curated on people's feeds. Countless studies have investigated the link between body dissatisfaction and social media usage, with the majority concluding that there is a strong association between social media usage and increased body dissatisfaction.
A significant proportion of what we see on social media conforms to the beauty ideals, perpetuating the idea of a what a ‘perfect body’ should look like. Many images will be altered – whether that be through the use of airbrushing apps or filters – and are posed to make a ‘flattering’ angle look more natural. The creation of these false realities, particularly by popular influencers and celebrities creates the unattainable standard that you must look a certain way to be beautiful and successful.
Research carried out in 2017 found that social media was the most common place that respondents looked to for comparing and judging their own appearance (3). It is of no surprise that global research carried out by Dove found that only 4% of women around the world consider themselves to be beautiful, with 74% of girls feeling tremendous pressure to be beautiful (5). Images posted on social media are creating a pressure to become something that is simply unattainable, so it is no wonder that many people are looking for ‘quick fixes’ such as restrictive diets and cosmetic surgery. In fact, is estimated that at least 33% of American’s are adhering to a restrictive diet (6).
Social media and eating disorder recovery
Some people will use social media to document their recovery journey and connect with others who are also in recovery. Supportive and encouraging communities have been formed across different social media channels, however, whether these communities are a help or a hinderance can depend on the individual and their motives for drawing inspiration from these accounts. We share the benefits of community in recovery in our guest blog.
No one’s recovery story will look the same, and although documenting and sharing experiences on social media can inspire hope for some people, they can also create a toxic cycle of comparison for others. Eating disorders thrive on comparison, and for some people, other people’s recovery accounts could fuel a sense of ‘not being sick enough’ to recover.
The content of posts can also be a determinant as to whether it is helpful or not. High frequency updates and oversharing information can have a harmful effect, once again reaffirming feelings of invalidity or even arming those with an eating disorder with more unhelpful behaviours.
The algorithm used to engage the attention of social media users can also pose a threat to someone recovering from an eating disorder, as it can make triggering content harder to avoid. The flaws of this algorithm could mean that even if someone was following accounts promoting recovery, there is potential for it to link these interests to unhelpful content, and therefore start recommending this.
How can I turn my social media into a safe space?
Despite social media’s flaws, it would be unfair to say that it doesn’t have any positives. If anything, the pandemic taught us the importance of staying in touch with people, and how virtual forms of communication can enable us to do so in situations when it may not otherwise be possible. Social media provides a platform for us to make friends across the globe, be inspired, educated and supported.
For those struggling with their relationship with food, social media has the potential to inspire hope of food freedom by providing a space for others to share their own stories and connect with people who understand their experiences.
If you’re looking to make your social media feed a more positive place or a place that nurtures your recovery, then we have a few tips for you.
1. Cull our following
If you are following an account that doesn't inspire, educate or support you, ask yourself how does this account serve me? If an account isn't adding value to your life, then it's time to strongly reconsider why you are following a person or account.
The reality is that most people won't notice if one person clicks the unfollow button. If you’re worried about upsetting someone by unfollowing them, you can mute them (this counts for friends and family too). This allows you to keep following them without their posts popping up on your feed.
2. Follow accounts that build you up rather than one’s that drag you down
Fill your feed with positive influences. There are countless accounts that promote body positivity and evidence-based knowledge, that can support your recovery journey. Below we’ve listed a few accounts to check out:
We also suggest following a wide range of different accounts that represent people from a range of different populations, body sizes, and fields. This stops our field of view from being reduced to one group of people, making it less likely for comparison to affect our self-esteem. We'd also encourage you to follow accounts that aren't nutrition, food, recovery or health related. Diversify your feed with other interests such as cute dogs, travel or fashion tips.
3. Be aware of unhelpful content
Make sure that you are aware of the flaws of social media and make a conscious effort to steer clear of unhelpful content as even one click can recommend similar posts. Some apps, like Instagram, have a ‘Not interested’ function that allows you to tell the app that you don’t wan to see content like this in the future. Check out our thoughts about What I Eat in a Day videos.
It is also important to be aware of the extent of photo shopping on social media, editing and body shape manipulation (did you see that post that went viral of the active wear photo shoot where the model had butt padding placed under her tights to make her glutes round?!). We like this video from Dove which shows how easy photoshopping can be and also recommend following @danaemercer for insightful content on this topic.
4. Be a critical thinker
Not all information that you find on social media will be accurate. Don’t take everything you read at face-value, and make sure that the information that you consume is from trustworthy sources. Evidence-based knowledge can be found on social media, but you need to make yourself aware of which profiles to trust and which to not.
5. Have a digital detox
It may not always be the case that we are able to totally wipe clean our social media feed. If you’re finding that scrolling through social media is negatively affecting the way you see yourself, then perhaps it’s time to take a step-back. It might be the case that you only need to detox for a few days or weeks, or it could be that you need a little longer. Note down how you felt before, and then return to it once you’re feeling better.
If you’re looking for more ways you can make your social media feed and posts a safer place, Beat has created some guidelines with some great information on this topic.
If you feel as though you are struggling with your relationship with food or your body, book a free discovery call with us. We would be delighted to guide you towards finding balance again.
Sophie Conant is a 2nd year Dietetics student at the University of Nottingham. Her own journey to finding food freedom has given her a passion to help others to do the same. In her spare time, she enjoys yoga, climbing and cooking for friends.
 Statista Research Department, 2021, Social Media Usage in the United States – Statistics & Facts, Accessed: 11th April 2022, Available at: Social media usage in the United States - Statistics & Facts | Statista
 Hou Y, Xiong D, Jiang T, Song L and Wang Q, 2019, Social media addiction: Its impact, mediation, and intervention, Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace Vol. 13
 Butterfly Foundation, 2017, Insights in Body Esteem, Available at: Insights-into-Body-Esteem-Report-PDF2.pdf (butterfly.org.au)
 Mind.UK, 2019, Self-Esteem, Accessed: 13th April 2022, Available at: What is self-esteem? - Mind
 Dove, 2021, Our research, Accessed: 12th April 2022, Available at: Our Research Into Self-Esteem and Body Confidence | Dove
 Brouns F, 2018, Overweight and diabetes prevention: Is a low-carbohydrate–high-fat diet recommendable?, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Talia Cecchele Nutrition is a team of registered dietitians that specialise in eating disorder recovery, disordered eating, gut health and sports nutrition. We aim to bring balance back to nutrition, help you to break free from food rules and find food freedom. We offer virtual consultations and group programs so whether you are based in London, the United Kingdom or around the world we would love to support you. To enquire about a private consultation please fill out a contact form.
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