The Darker Side of Social Media


Content Warning: the following article deals with topics concerning eating disorders and pro-eating disorder online communities.

People use social media every day. Even though millennials have a bad reputation for never being off their phones, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Social media has introduced us to a new means of communication. We can now easily keep in contact with people we might have otherwise lost it with. We can say hello to distant cousins we’ve never met, who live on the other side of the planet, just by posting on their Facebook wall. We can meet people with the same interests and can speak to a community about a TV show no one you know in person watches.

Social media can be great. We can see what friends are up to; we can let people know what we’re doing at the push of a button, where we are, who we’re with and what we’re eating. It is something we all do, we want the likes and we want people to see and – despite what anyone might say – it’s okay to do that. It’s okay to post a selfie because fuck it, you look great and you want other people to like it. If you take a picture, what’s the point in keeping it to yourself? Of course you’re going to share it! However, despite the fun and the good side to social media, we cannot forget the side that promotes an unhealthy and dangerous lifestyle.

Logging on to Instagram or Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter, you don’t need to look far to see the latest diet endorsement from a celebrity. They tell us that if we buy the detox tea, we’ll look like them in no time. Scroll down and we see someone trying a clean eating diet, telling us it’s the best thing they’ve done and how much weight they’ve lost in the last two weeks! Moving on we find another telling us it’s their cheat day and they’re going to have a square of chocolate after the gym because they deserve a treat. You don’t need to look far to find someone posting about what they’re eating and how they feel guilty for their McDonalds and that they need to “hit the gym asap!!”, or how they shouldn’t have had their second slice of pizza. Social media is popular for uploading statuses and images of all sorts, but whilst most do so innocently, there is a group who use social media as a platform for sharing images that have a dangerous and triggering effect on people.

This isn’t merely about posting pictures of food or a person’s need to go the gym – this refers to ‘pro-ana’, ‘pro-mia’ or ‘thinspiration’ communities, who post and tag images of unhealthy diets, or promote a threatening lifestyle. Unfortunately, social media platforms are not doing much to protect its users. Looking at Instagram in particular, when browsing such tags, a warning is posted to inform users that they may be about to view harmful content. However, all a person needs to do is click ‘view anyway’ and these images are easily accessed. It wasn’t that long ago that its users realised that uploading an image of a female nipple violated Instagram’s policies, yet uploading images promoting eating disorders receives only a warning that a person can easily avoid. These measures aren’t good enough and, quite frankly, cannot be fixed by a thirty-second video advertisement promoting mental health campaigns and communities.

Eating disorders are no laughing matter, and these issues and their side effects need to be tackled now. 20% of those diagnosed with an eating disorder die prematurely; less than 50% of those diagnosed will make a full recovery, with around 30% considered to be improving and around 20% suffering chronically. These are scary and shocking statistics, considering how than 725,000 people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder. Whilst social media isn’t a direct cause it has a great influence in people’s day-to-day lives, those with or without diagnosed eating disorders alike. (Statistics from B-EAT)

Social media amplifies society’s expectations of ‘the perfect body’, and, in turn, promoting diet restriction and unrealistic goals become popular. The Internet helps to promote these thoughts surrounding body image and whilst it is not the cause, it is a risk. If a person who is struggling with a mental illness and/or how they view themselves sees a post about ‘losing weight fast’, or gaining that ‘perfect summer body’, or a photoshopped image of an unrealistic weight goal, it is not going to help.  There needs to be a better way of tackling this issue on social media because such harmful content is too easily accessed. Merely giving out an easily-ignored warning is, quite frankly, not good enough.

Help and information can be found at www.b-eat.co.uk

[Kelly MacArthur – @_kellymacx]

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