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Teenagers spend an astonishing 7 hours and 22 minutes a day using mobile devices, not including time spent online for schoolwork, according to 2019 data from Common Sense Media. In the past four years, that number has nearly doubled. Perhaps more shocking, tweens, defined as children ages 8-12, are right on their heels, with an average of 4 hours and 44 minutes of screen time per day. When listening to music and reading (such as an e-book, but unrelated to schoolwork) are factored in, these numbers increase to 9 hours and 49 minutes and 5 hours and 54 minutes, respectively. Our children are quite literally spending more time with media than in school, with their families, and in some cases, even sleeping.

Some other eye-opening figures to consider:

  • 69% of children have their own smartphones by age 12, up from 41% in 2015
  • The percentage of teenagers who watch online videos daily increased from 34% in 2015 to 69% in 2019, while for tweens it rose from 24% to 56%
  • More than 70% of teens visit at least one social media platform each day
  • Instagram is strongly favored by teens, with 72% of teens using the app daily. This is a significant increase from 52% in 2015
  • According to 54% of teens, parents would be much more worried about their social media use if they knew what actually happens on it
  • 43% of teenagers feel bad about themselves if a social media post doesn’t get enough likes or comments, and the same percentage has deleted a post because of it

Before social media’s explosion in popularity in the 2010s, teens had just a handful of moments each week where they compared their bodies directly to their peers’: in the locker room or at the pool during P.E. or sports practice. Today’s constant onslaught of perfectly-edited images on social media feeds has changed that.

A 2016 study found a strong link between consistent social media use and negative body image issues including dieting, self-objectification, and body surveillance. Interestingly, the data showed that exposure to one’s own social media account did not negatively impact body image, suggesting that the problem largely lies in the comparison factor that goes along with scrolling through social media feeds.

To be clear, social media usage is not the cause of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. However, there is no question that there is a link between eating disorders and social media use, particularly in the development and perpetuation of body image issues. This is especially true in young people who are already suffering from or in treatment for an eating disorder, as they are much more susceptible to the influence and pressures of social media.

To better understand the impact social media can have on young people with eating disorders, here’s a closer look at the ways it can directly trigger disordered behavior.

1. An unrealistic perception of body image

The countless photos of celebrities, athletes, and models — including “Instagram models” — on social media are what many teen and tweenagers aspire to. Of course, social media feeds are a tightly-curated highlight reel, hand-selected photos showing people only at their best, but adolescents often perceive them as reality.

This becomes especially startling when you consider that as much as 8% of Instagram accounts are fake, according to research compiled by Ghost Data. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the fake accounts feature photos of supermodels and celebrities.

Evidence shows that the parts of the brain that govern reasoning and good decision-making skills are not fully formed until the early 20s, so it’s no wonder that teens are so easily convinced that what they see on social media represents reality. Factor into that adolescents who already have a negative body image and may also be in treatment for an eating disorder, and you have a recipe for disaster.
These teens are constantly seeking approval and ways to feel better about themselves as it is, so this added pressure can easily trigger disordered eating behaviors as they try to achieve an impossible standard.

2. Placing less importance on in-person interactions

Teenagers living with eating disorders, in particular bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorders, often engage in their disordered eating behaviors in private. This is partly because they are ashamed of their behaviors, and partly because there is an overwhelming feeling of being all alone in the world that is closely associated with eating disorders.

The ease and consistency with which we can connect with someone on social media provide a false sense of togetherness, and this can be especially worrisome in teens who are in recovery for an eating disorder. Instead of going out and making real-world connections, they are prioritizing the more-comfortable shallow interactions found on social media. The Common Sense Media study found that 42% of teens admitted that social media distracts them from time they could be spending with family or friends in person, up from 34% in 2012.

Parents should help combat this growing problem by limiting screen time and encouraging more face-to-face interactions, such as extracurricular activities.

3. Feelings of exclusion

Research on adults who have successfully completed treatment for eating disorders shows that they often have very small social circles and struggle with many aspects of social function. On the other hand, the same data shows a significant link between successful eating disorder recovery and support from one’s social circle and regular social interaction.

Social media can easily make someone feel excluded. Seeing your friends doing something fun without you, or even seeing total strangers appearing to have a great time, can cause you to feel left out. In teens who are in recovery for eating disorders, this can quickly escalate and trigger disordered behaviors. Feelings and thoughts along the lines of, “I’m not pretty/good/thin enough or they would have invited me” can lead to destructive behaviors such as bingeing or not eating at all in an attempt to fit in.

4. Cyberbullying

65% of people with an eating disorder say that bullying contributed to it, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Social media has provided a platform on which bullies can take their tactics much too far, well outside the realm of a schoolyard. Though none have been published yet, studies are currently being conducted to prove that cyberbullying is actually more damaging than “regular” bullying.

Because young adults suffering from eating disorders are especially susceptible to being bullied, if it does happen, the effects could be devastating. Cyberbullying causes depression, social anxiety, feelings of low or no self-worth, and fear, all things that eating disorders thrive on.

5. Easy access to pro-ED communities

Websites that are pro-eating disorder, often referred to as “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) and “pro-mia” (pro-bulimia), have been around as long as the internet, but social media gives them a far-reaching platform. Communities form with the specific mission of encouraging the destructive behaviors associated with eating disorders, calling them lifestyle choices and vehemently denying that they are mental illnesses. Members share stories, photos, and even tips and tricks.
NEDA’s Head of Youth Outreach, Claire Mysko, said, “We live in a culture where eating disorders thrive because of the messages we’re exposed to. Social media heightens that exposure.” She went on to explain that behaviors often associated with eating disorders, such as comparison, competition, seeking approval, and obsession, are highlighted and amplified by social media.

What Parents Can Do

Now that we’ve examined the negative impacts social media use can have on eating disorders and their recovery, let’s turn to what can be done to help. One of the most notable discoveries from the Common Sense Media study: While the number of teens and tween who use it is staggering, many reported that they do it because they feel like they have to to keep up with their peers, but it is not their favorite online activity. That honor goes to watching videos.

What that tells us is that our teens truly do need some guidance when it comes to their online consumption, and not just social media. Social media does have a lot of positive applications, so how can parents ensure that adolescents in recovery for eating disorders are using it safely? After all, let’s face it: You won’t be able to keep your child from social media forever. Arming them with the right knowledge and tools so that they use social media as it was intended — as a platform to connect with peers — is the much wiser choice.

  • Encourage positive self-esteem that has nothing to do with looks or body image. Compliment (often!) character traits and talents as opposed to appearance.
  • Support off-line connections and activities. Encourage your teen to participate in athletics, clubs, and other extracurriculars, as well as to spend quality face-to-face time with friends. Model that in your own home as well and have family game nights and other activities that promote real-life interaction and communication.
  • Be choosy about what you post and engage with on social media yourself. Be mindful of posting revealing photos and be purposeful when you interact with other people’s photos, making sure not to comment on or like only “perfect” photos.
  • Institute “unplugged” hours in your home when all electronic devices are shut off or put away. During these times, have meaningful conversations with your teen and be present.
  • Keep tabs on your adolescent’s social media use. Be aware of which platforms they has a profile on and even help them create it, using it as a teachable moment about what is and is not appropriate for social media. Create your profiles on the same social media platforms. It’s a smart idea to have the account passwords until you feel comfortable with your teen’s social media behaviors.

Clementine’s Adolescent-Centered Approach

Clementine is unique in that its programs are focused exclusively on teenagers and because of that, there is a strong emphasis on family and academic support, as well as reintegration and after-care planning. It is not a short-term fix, it’s a long-term recovery solution for adolescents struggling with bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.
Care at Clementine is relationship-based and collaborative, with all efforts being focused on successful long-term recovery.

The comprehensive eating disorder treatment program at Clementine is comprised of:

  • Individual weekly therapy sessions with the patient’s primary therapist, clinical director, family therapist, psychiatrist, and dietitian
  • Daily group therapy, which may include sessions on interpersonal relationships, body image, cognitive behavioral therapy, and art and other creative expressive therapies
  • Weekly family therapy sessions and multi-family group sessions
  • Individually-tailored therapy or treatment for co-occurring disorders including trauma or substance abuse
  • Life skills development
  • Exposure therapy, including weekly food challenges and restaurant outings
  • Movement therapy and exercise
  • Reintegration support

No matter where you are in the process of searching for the perfect eating disorder treatment and recovery center for your family, we would love to hear from you and guide you through the next steps. Contact Clementine today to see if it’s a good fit.


Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.