by Reese Layh
In the past decade, rates of social media engagement have skyrocketed. Currently, 72% of Americans use at least one social media site (“Pew Research”, 2022). Adolescents and young adults report even higher engagement, with 98.3% of undergraduate university students using social media (Polanco-Levicán & Salvo-Garrido, 2022). With this rise in popularity, social media “influencers”, or people with a sizable following who promote certain brands, products, and lifestyles, have become increasingly common. One specific category of influencers brand themselves by their commitment to healthful eating and exercise. They post low-calorie recipes, diet recommendations, workout routines, and tips for how to achieve one’s ideal body.
Much of the advice they give is not based on any scientific evidence. Their recommendations for healthful eating often involve cutting out entire food groups, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies. They also occasionally encourage unhealthy behaviors including extremely strict calorie counting, overexercising, and restricting food intake to harmful levels. Their advice can encourage an unhealthy obsession with food that may lead to what has been referred to in the media as “orthorexia nervosa” (Turner & Lefevre, 2017), but can also influence the development of other eating disorders.
It is important to begin with the fact that orthorexia is not a recognized eating disorder, and CEED faculty suggest that it is unlikely to ever become one. Orthorexia was first introduced in the 1990’s by Steve Bratman, MD and it is defined as “a pathological obsession with proper nutrition that is characterized by a restrictive diet, ritualized patterns of eating, and rigid avoidance of foods believed to be unhealthy or impure” (Koven & Abry, 2015). For many, it can represent the first stage of anorexia nervosa. Regardless of what we call it, social media usage is linked to this pattern of obsessional and restrictive eating (Turner & Lefevre, 2017).
Turner & Lefevre (2017) found a significant relationship between orthorexic symptoms and Instagram use, with more time spent on Instagram being associated with a greater frequency of these types of behaviors. Awad et al. (2022) also found that using Instagram, using Tumblr, or spending more than 60 minutes per day on social media apps were all significantly associated with higher rates of these types of behaviors. An association has also been shown between social media and orthorexic-like behaviors in university students (Gabriel, 2021). This is particularly concerning because although anorexia nervosa can develop at any point throughout the lifespan, the most common age of onset is in adolescence (Volpe, 2016). Adolescents and young adults are the population shown to use social media at the highest rates, so the connection between social media usage and disordered eating habits has exacerbated ramifications for this age group.
One theory behind the power of these social media connections is that the image-based nature of some social media sites plays to the “picture-superiority effect,” which states that images are more salient in memory than text (Whitehouse et al., 2006). Therefore, pictures of healthy food on social media are more memorable and impact behavior more than simply talking or reading about healthy eating (Turner & Lefevre, 2017). Moreover, social media encourages selective exposure, as users choose which accounts to follow and which content to view. Therefore, if users are constantly viewing healthy eating and fitness content, they may believe that these rigid and obsessional eating and fitness tendencies are more common than they actually are, and feel perceived societal pressure to conform to these standards. Problematic beliefs and behaviors about diet and exercise may also be reinforced by constant exposure to and interaction with posts (Turner & Lefevre, 2017). Another pitfall of social media is that influencers with large followings are often perceived as having authority. Healthful eating influencers reach an enormous number of people with their meticulously curated images and branding that are not always reflective of their actual lifestyle. Their audiences may assume that their claims about health are accurate and scientifically backed when they are not (Turner & Lefevre, 2017).
Although it is frightening that many individuals turn to the internet and social media for information about health and fitness, steps can be taken to reduce the potentially negative impact. The concept of social media literacy has arisen from the field of media literacy and aims to provide users of social media with skills to understand and assess social media content, evaluate the reliability and credibility of the information and its source, and even help defend against cybervictimization (Polanco-Levicán & Salvo-Garrido, 2022).Social media literacy focuses on helping individuals develop an arsenal of protective skills, from technical to social-emotional. These tools can be invaluable for both youth and adults and could help users defend against the lure of influencers who can lead them toward potentially health-damaging behaviors.
Awad, E., Rogoza, R., Gerges, S., Obeid, S., & Hallit, S. (2022). Association of Social Media Use Disorder and orthorexia nervosa among Lebanese University students: The indirect effect of loneliness and factor structure of the social media use disorder short form and the jong-gierveld loneliness scales. Psychological Reports, 003329412211329. https://doi.org/10.1177/00332941221132985
Gabriel, S. (2021) Exploring the relationship between physical activity, gender, social media and orthorexia nervosa in university students. University of Twente Thesis https://purl.utwente.nl/essays/86800.
Koven, N., & Abry, A. (2015). The clinical basis of orthorexia nervosa: Emerging perspectives. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 385. https://doi.org/10.2147/ndt.s61665
Pew Research Center. (2022). Social Media Fact sheet. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Retrieved November 13, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media/
Polanco-Levicán, K., & Salvo-Garrido, S. (2022). Understanding social media literacy: A systematic review of the concept and its competences. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(14), 8807. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19148807
Turner, P. G., & Lefevre, C. E. (2017). Instagram use is linked to increased symptoms of orthorexia nervosa. Eating and Weight Disorders – Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 22(2), 277–284. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-017-0364-2
Volpe, U., Tortorella, A., Manchia, M., Monteleone, A. M., Albert, U., & Monteleone, P. (2016). Eating disorders: What age at onset? Psychiatry Research, 238, 225–227. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2016.02.048
Whitehouse, A. J., Maybery, M. T., & Durkin, K. (2006). The development of the picture-superiority effect. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24(4), 767–773. https://doi.org/10.1348/026151005×74153