Media Meltdown: Eating Disorders in the Digital Age

It can be hard to be human in the age of technology. It’s an age where people share all their accomplishments on social media, where images are photoshopped to perfection and where marketing ploys play on individual insecurities. “This media-dominated culture impacts self-image, self-worth and, in subtle but powerful ways, influences both men and women to buy into quick fixes,” said licensed clinical social worker and certified group psychotherapist Jude Treder-Wolff.

These quick fixes are sometimes fad diets, which can lead to a shame cycle and even an eating disorder. Research published by the Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Review in 2004 stressed the role of media in the development of eating disorders. It also referenced a 2002 study that found females expressed lower body satisfaction after viewing thin media images.

Treder-Wolff, who is based in Smithtown, has helped 250 patients dealing with eating disorders. She shared more about the persistent social pressure to be thinner and how it can trigger an eating disorder.

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How can fad diets lead to eating disorders?
Fad diets are coming from this stream of marketing ideas about how to look amazing in a short period of time. The product—a program, a supplement—is sold by playing to these insecurities we all have and partly by associating it with images of a beautiful person, as if we too might wind up looking like that. Although a fad diet may actually help in the short-term, if it doesn’t result in a long-term change it only strengthens the sense that we are inadequate and not enough. That leads to another fad diet in a cycle of self-doubt and distorted body image that leads to eating disorders.

What have you seen to be a main cause of eating disorders?
It starts with a general insecurity about oneself, a need for approval. Some people can feel insecure because they were teased, rejected or found that they received positive attention and approval mainly for their looks, which makes them vulnerable to marketing ploys like fad diets…Young people can have a tendency towards perfectionism…and society is saying thinness is one of the ways we know you are good enough.

Who is most affected by eating disorders?
Eating disorders are viewed as impacting women more than men, but the reality is that men too can develop a full-blown eating disorder for similar reasons. Struggling with weight during developmental years and being criticized, teased or bullied about it can be a major factor for both young men and women. These behaviors can start as early as the middle school years when bodies are changing and we have a heightened awareness and self-consciousness about how we look. But an eating disorder can be triggered at any age if binge-eating—or the opposite, not eating—becomes a way of coping with some underlying insecurity, fear or feeling out of control.

How does social media impact eating disorders?
It can have an impact on it in both directions. Upside: a lot of resources for those in recovery like different groups and communities. There is so much encouragement and support people get from social media at any hour of the day or night if they reach out. That connection can be a powerful force that reduces the feelings of loneliness and anxiety that can drive eating disorders. Downside: social media is an instant, immediate opportunity to compare ourselves to others. And our followers on Facebook or Instagram tend to be people we know and who are relatively similar to us. When exposed to posts and photos by people saying how great things are going for them, social media can make a person that is already sensitive and vulnerable feel a lot worse.

Can making models appear more realistic in the media make a difference?
Television brought spectacular looking women with a very specific body type into our homes and into our consciousness…and advertising conveys the message that there is a way we too can look like that. Average-sized women represented in the media have the same kind of impact but in a healthier direction. We know there are many sizes and body types that exist, and it is important to see them in ads and on screens because of the powerful influence those images have on our sense of self-acceptance. Images of women looking healthy and radiant, but of any size or body type, also get into our consciousness in a positive way.

Fad diets aren’t the only types of diets that can lead to eating disorders. There are other eating habits that can trigger disorders and also have psychological consequences. Check back next week as Pulse explores the subject even deeper.