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

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

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