Eating Disorders Among Teens Linked to Social Media

Written by PTC | Published March 15, 2024

It seems like years since Congress first started holding hearings on social media and its impact on America’s youth. Going back to 2021, leaked internal documents from Instagram (owned by Meta) stated that their own internal research showed, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”

In the months and years since, new data, new stories, new tragedies have come to light on a near-daily basis showing just how toxic social media can be in the life of a teenager.

In January, researchers from the University of Vermont found that TikTok algorithms promote unhealthy eating and unrealistic body image among teens through its endless “For You” feed.

Researchers sounded the alarm on TikTok “overriding legitimate experts to promote thinness and restrictive dieting as the sole path to health.”

The L.A. Post reports, “The platform’s unique reach among young people coinciding with key stages for physical and emotional development further troubles experts. During ages 15-25, when bodies and self-image undergo dramatic fluctuations, TikTok elevates reductive soundbites on achieving superficial ideals over nuanced medical wisdom.

The cognitive dissonance between reality and unrealistic standards plays out through rises in conditions like anorexia, bulimia, and overexercise, which have doubled among adolescents since the pandemic, according to nonprofit reports.”

According to the report’s authors, “The potential exposure to endless weight or food-related content becomes more concerning when considering TikTok’s user demographics. Most TikTok users are in Gen-Z (people born in the mid-1990’s to mid-2010’s). In July 2020, TikTok reported that one-third of its 49 million daily users were at or below the age of 14.”

This is particularly concerning because content on TikTok is user-generated so there are no gatekeepers to keep harmful messages in check, and that, combined with social media algorithms are a particularly dangerous combination.

In round after round of Congressional hearings, parents and expert witnesses alike have warned that social media algorithms can and frequently do lead impressionable youngsters to increasingly extreme content. “When users view or engage with weight loss tips, toxic advice, or thinness-promoting messaging, TikTok's algorithm interprets that as interest and serves up more content. This creates a dangerous echo chamber effect unlikely on networks sharing posts mainly amongst established friend circles.

“On TikTok, the app itself drives viral promotion through recommendations centered around maximizing watch time. So harmful diet claims spread rapidly in front of the highest-risk demographic through sheer viewing behavior patterns without other credibility filters,” according to the L.A. Post.

And because TikTok users are young, often naïve and lacking in critical thinking skills, they readily accept guidance from influencers that is not rooted in science.

“National polls found over 80% of 10-22-year-old TikTok users follow fitness guidance from the app, with over 75% saying content changed eating habits and perceptions of bodies,” the Post reports.

Read the story:
Experts Link Social Media to Uptick in Teen Eating Disorders ( [NB: This article is behind a paywall]

Read the study:
UVM Study Shows TikTok Perpetuates Toxic Diet Culture Among Teens and Young Adults
Weight-normative messaging predominates on TikTok—A qualitative content analysis | PLOS ONE

Related stories:
The dark side of TikTok's algorithm - ABC News
Report: TikTok boosts posts about eating disorders, suicide | AP News

Take Action. Stay Informed.