Is Facebook enabling eating disorders?

A new survey has found that Facebook might be enabling eating disordered thinking and behaviour.

The survey, conducted by The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore, suggests that the omnipresent and seemingly omnipotent social media site “is influencing body image and hyper-awareness of body size.”

The CED surveyed 600 Facebook users between the ages of 16 and 40 nationwide. Fifty-one percent of respondents reported that “seeing photos of themselves and others makes them more conscious of their body and weight.”

Some more sobering stats from the survey:

51% of respondents said that seeing photos of themselves make them more conscious about their body and weight.

51% agree that they often find themselves comparing their life to that of their friends when they read status updates and see pictures posted.

32% said they feel sad when comparing Facebook photos of themselves to their friend’s photos.

44% wish they had the same body or weight as a friend when looking at photos.

37% feel they need to change specific parts of their body when comparing their bodies to friend’s bodies in photos.  

Also, 44% of respondents “said they are always conscious when attending social events that photos of them might get posted on Facebook.” The Center says that Facebook is contributing to a “camera ready” mentality, but it’s not simply camera-readiness that’s the problem; it’s how people behave when they don’t feel camera-ready. The survey found that 43% of respondents “will avoid having people photograph them at a social event if they don’t feel they look their best.”

And, as Facebook becomes ever more ubiquitous and brings in more and more features, those features are enabling disordered thinking and behaviour:

53% have compared their body and weight in photos taken at different times.

14% have used Facebook’s new weight loss tracker. 37% are interested in trying it.

Of course, this thinking and behaviour were a problem well before Facebook. People would compare their bodies to their friends’ or compare old photos to new ones whether Facebook or Facebook Timeline existed. But the survey indicates that Facebook is enabling that behaviour.

And as Facebook and other photosharing sites become more and more present, it becomes harder for people to create safe spaces for themselves. As Dr. Harry Brandt, the director of the Center for Eating Disorders, says, “it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to remove themselves from images and other triggers that promote negative body image, low self-esteem and may ultimately contribute to eating disorders.”

So what’s the solution? As usual, it’s critical consumption of technology and media. It’s a matter of teaching people, especially young people, how to use these technologies responsibly and safely.

And of course, it’s about continuing the long, hard slog of breaking down the cultural expectation that we should hate our own bodies. That expectation existed long before Facebook, and unless we keep pushing back hard against it, it will continue to co-opt new technology. This survey suggests that with Facebook, one of the world’s most profitable and influential pieces of new technology, it has already succeeded.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/alesbianandascholar/ radicallyqueer

    I’d believe it, Chloe! I recently had someone posting defamatory stuff about me re-post a Facebook picture about me to her Wall so that folks could misgender me for fun (oh, boy!) and one stranger commented on how a dress I bought for Momentum this weekend was too small. I almost never have body issues of this particular variety, but I do have an ED history, and a stranger saying that gave me a little wibble about said dress and whether it’d be ok to wear. I immediately blocked the poster on Facebook but it was a bit rattling. Looking forward to meeting you this weekend, incidentally–I’m a friend of Hanne’s and a presenter for the second year and I’m really excited about the Chewing the Cyberfat panel!

  • http://feministing.com/members/sooziechapstick/ Katie

    Can you provide the link to the survey please? The press release from the homepage of The Center isn’t working for some reason.

  • http://feministing.com/members/amck/ AMM

    And as Facebook and other photosharing sites become more and more present, it becomes harder for people to create safe spaces for themselves.

    You don’t have to be part of the Facebook class to suffer from this. Now that virtually all cell phones have cameras, and virtually everyone has a cell phone, your image becomes the property of pretty much anyone who feels like snapping a picture. It never occurs to anyone to ask whether you want to be photographed, or to ask if it’s OK to post a picture of you on-line. It never occurs to anyone that posting even an innocuous picture of you might have negative consequences. (I was at a dance event where someone had to tell everyone not to post any pictures of him on-line, because his non-USA employers considered men dancing with women immoral.)

    This is the sort of goldfish-bowl life that, back when I was young, only celebrities had to worry about. Now, even if you’re a nobody, you can’t go out in public without worrying that you’re going to be an object of global ridicule — or worse.

  • http://feministing.com/members/freckledpapaya/ Maya

    This seems like a pretty one sided view of the issue. I think the problem has more to do with the fact that upon seeing pictures of themselves, young women are constantly holding themselves up to impossible standards and comparing themselves to their friends. The Facebook photo posting phenomenon definitely represents the way our culture has become obsessed with image and being constantly in the public eye, but i wouldn’t say it’s responsible for that entire mindset.