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Influencers & Eating Disorders – Measuring the Influence

2022-03-07T09:29:44+00:00

Last Updated on 7th March 2022

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In the last few years, as the impact of social media influence continues to grow, there has been a growing concern over the link between influencers and eating disorders.

Websites that encourage disordered eating have been around almost as long as the internet has existed. In the 90s, ‘pro-anorexia’ sites (often referred to as ‘pro ana’) could be found online; these were usually forums where people who had eating disorders would share tips, tricks, and post ‘progress’ photos, often encouraging each other to eat less or sharing ideas on how to hide their behaviours in front of others.

On the modern-day internet, these types of posts are no longer hidden away on message boards. Instead, they can be found in plain view on the most popular social media apps and platforms. Between knowing the right hashtags to search for and becoming caught in certain algorithms, a young person could be exposed to this type of content within seconds of opening a social media app.

Laptop Screen showing message boards of 'thighspo'

Young People and Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complex – there’s no one reason why someone might develop an eating disorder. Someone might feel a lack of control in their life that can be countered by controlling their weight or food intake. It could be because of anxiety or low self-esteem. Pressures in society can also be a cause – for example, comparing themselves to others and feeling a need to lose weight which then becomes extreme and develops into an eating disorder.

Any young person can be vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. Alongside common teenager anxieties over appearance, life events such as exam pressures and even the stress and changes brought on by the pandemic could trigger or contribute to the development of an eating disorder.

Remember that online harms have offline roots – while a young person may have developed an eating disorder due to the online content they’re consuming, this isn’t always the case. It is just, if not more, likely that there is another root cause as to why they have developed an eating disorder. They may have then sought out content, intentionally or unintentionally, that encourages or validates their behaviours. Though this may seem contrary or counterproductive, it isn’t unusual behaviour for someone who has an eating disorder. For example, a young person may seek out photos of celebrities or influencers who are thin as motivation. This is referred to as ‘thinspo’ or ‘thinsporation’.

example of an instagram page called 'extreme_slim_fans'

Influencers and Eating Disorders: Is There a Link?

What are Influencers?

An influencer is someone with an online social media presence and with a large enough following to market or ‘influence’ their audience to buy products, services, and goods. Celebrities may also be influencers, for example Kendall Jenner and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube are the most popular platforms for influencers to operate on.

While it would be difficult to find influencers who openly encourage their fans to have an eating disorder, it is in the content itself that the problem lies. Current research suggests there is a link between how often someone uses social media and their likelihood of developing an eating disorder. A perfect example of this is Instagram. The platform has recently faced negative publicity and increased scrutiny due to the suggestion that Instagram use, negatively impacts on the body consciousness of teenage girls.

During the pandemic, many young people turned to apps and platforms to help them stay connected. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, the pandemic has had a major impact on young people’s mental health and eating disorders is no exception. One study showed that 55% of those living with an eating disorder reported that increased time spent online due to Covid-19 had worsened their symptoms.

From weight loss products, diet tips, and exercise regimes, social media can be an endless barrage of posts regarding losing weight and ‘improving’ your body.

Increasingly, we are seeing more and more influencers and celebrities take a ‘health and wellness’ angle, with the onus more on weight loss than healthy eating. The Kardashians have advertised appetite suppressant lollies. Cardi B promoted weight loss tea (and got a stern warning from the American Federal Trade Commission about it).

40% of girls aged 11-16 years old say they’ve seen images online that have made them feel insecure or less confident about themselves.

Source: Girl Guides

For a young person who is vulnerable, some of the common trends and content posted by social media influencers may be extremely triggering, including:

  • Sponsored adverts for appetite suppressants, weight-loss products, and exercise wear.
  • ‘What I Eat in a Day’, videos that show an influencer preparing or highlighting their daily meals.
  • Filters and editing software to alter appearances in photos and videos.
  • Exercise regimes/posts, especially ones that target specific body areas (i.e., arms, stomach, legs).
  • #Food, which is in the top 25 most used hashtag.
Image of a male filming his fitness routine

Once a young person starts searching for content associated with eating disorders (weight loss, diet tips, progress photos etc), the way that most social media algorithms work means they are more likely to keep seeing this type of content. This repeated exposure is only likely to reinforce their patterns of behaviour and serve as a constant reminder that they ‘aren’t thin enough’ or are ‘ugly’ or need to ‘work harder’ to achieve their so-called ‘goals’.

Influencers and Advertising

Influencers are changing the nature of advertising in digital markets. As more brands begin to recognise the power influencers have, especially on younger consumers, it is becoming more common to see ‘sponsored ads’ with ‘unbiased’ reviews on influencer profiles. This plays a large part in nearly 50% of young people using social media for online brand research before making purchases. It may seem like an obvious ploy and Ofcom have reported that 65% of young people are aware of influencer endorsements but generally, find them helpful or informative as they align with their interests.

Not all influencers are posting harmful content. In fact, there are many influencers who post ‘pro-recovery’ content, encouraging people with eating disorders to seek help and support and sharing their positive experiences of a life recovered from an eating disorder. Some influencers and celebrities specialise in posting body positive content, such as Jameela Jamil, who started an online movement supporting body positivity and campaigns against harmful diet advertising.

iPad screen showing I WEIGHS twitter page by Jameela Jamil

Signs of an Eating Disorder

It isn’t always easy to notice the signs that a young person is developing or developed an eating disorder. It’s not uncommon for someone with an eating disorder to go to great lengths to hide their behaviours and young people often hide elements of their lives from their parents/carers anyway.

It’s important to note that many people with an eating disorder do not have visible and extreme weight loss and that this shouldn’t be relied upon as a sign that a young person is struggling. In fact, there is often a stigma associated with eating disorders that a person isn’t ‘successful’ in their goal to lose weight or ‘sick enough’ if they don’t appear emaciated or weigh a dangerously low amount.

Recognising the signs of problematic relationships with food is central to supporting children and young people during uncertain times.

 

These may include:

  • Refusing to eat certain foods; engagement with fad diets or masking problematic behaviours with different food practices (no sugar, no carbs, vegan, keto, paleo etc) or a preoccupation with calories.
  • Withdrawal or less interest in social activities that were previously enjoyable.
  • Making frequent comments about feeling ‘fat’ or ‘overweight’ or a preoccupation with looking in the mirror to check for flaws.
  • Drinking excessive amounts of water/low calorie drinks (black coffee/diet fizzy drinks).
  • Sudden poor oral hygiene, or brushing of teeth more than necessary.
  • For females, they may miss their period or have other menstrual irregularities
  • Impaired immune system or healing problems.

  • Irritability, low mood and other mental health issues.
  • Maintaining excessive exercise habits despite weather, fatigue, social life or other obligations.
  • The disappearance of large amounts of food.

How can you support young people?

You can support young people experiencing an eating disorder by:

  • Using this article and the accompanying Safeguarding Factsheet to understand the issue.
  • Recognising that eating disorders are complex mental health conditions and the young people dealing with them deserve the support of their family, friends and wider community.
  • Use this article to talk to them about eating disorders and influencers and whether they feel any link between their feelings about themselves and what they view on social media.
  • Not relying on or referring to low weight as a measure of whether they are struggling with an eating disorder.
  • Understanding what language or topics may be unhelpful to discuss with a young person who is struggling with their relationship with food. This also includes being mindful of the language you use regarding your own weight and diet and be cautious of what you’re consuming, food wise as well as on social media and T.V.
  • Recognising that eating disorders are not a choice and can affect a young person regardless of body shape, gender or weight.
  • Helping the young person in your care to engage with their support network, and to seek medical attention if appropriate.
  • Reminding the young person in your care that influencers and celebrities may not actually use any of the products they are selling or follow the diet or exercise regime they’re posting.
  • Having a conversation about how to spot sponsored posts or adverts – is there an external link to click on? Is the text written in the same style as the influencer usually writes or could it be copy sent by an advertiser for them to copy and paste? Are there any companies tagged or mentioned in the text?
  • Reminding them that too much time on social media can affect our mental health – encourage the young person in your care to take breaks from social media and develop healthy screen time habits.

Information Advice and Guidance

BEAT Eating Disorders Charity

Advice if you’re worried about a pupil

Advice if you’re worried about a family member

Advice on seeking treatment for an eating disorder

NHS

Advice for Parents on eating disorders

Learn more about eating disorders

Advice on supporting someone with an eating disorder

Parents/Carers and Safeguarding Professionals can use the NSPCCs child protection helpline for help, advice and guidance.

Parents and carers can signpost Children to the Childline Helpline, available on 0800 1111 or chat using www.childline.org.uk

 

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