Eating disorders linked to Instagram use.

The prevalence of eating disorders is increasing, and Instagram use is contributing to anxiety among teenage girls. This should be of great concern to parents. You should be worried about your teenage daughter using Instagram. I am not only sensitive about this issue, but also pessimistic about the current state of social media. All teenage girls are using the photo sharing app, Instagram. They use Instagram to connect with their friends and to keep tabs on their “thinfluencers.” They use Instagram to access information about dieting and weight loss. It has been reported that Instagram pushes weight loss messages to teenagers. In this way, Instagram is hurting them. The Wall Street Journal recently revealed Facebook’s own internal research showed that a significant proportion of teens felt WORSE about their bodies after using Instagram. Translation: they think they should be thinner. Facebook’s internal research revealed that teen girls admitted to feeling increased anxiety and depression after scrolling through pictures and posts on Instagram.

Emily Nagoski describes the “bikini industrial complex” in her book “Burnout: Unlocking the Stress Response.”  Simply put, this is our current societal notion that thinness is beautiful. Our culture’s aspirational beauty ideal is looking sexy and thin in a bikini, or any clothing that reveals a svelte body. American teenage girls are confronted with this message from a very early age. Before being exposed to Instagram images on their phone, they have seen plenty of magazine covers featuring thin celebrities. They have watched YouTube videos of skinny models, and seen skinny actresses on television commercials and sitcoms.

Personal History.

My own daughter developed an eating disorder in high school. My sixteen-year-old daughter developed her eating disorder long before Instagram was invented. Back in 2008, she compared herself to her friends in high school, on the swim team, and at Camp Champions. The pictures from summer camp were filled with happy, skinny, teen girls posing in bikinis with their thin arms draped around each other’s boney shoulders. In addition, the high school my daughter attended was a competitive, clique-infested, compilation of entitled, rich kids. This notion was corroborated by other mothers I knew personally whose daughters graduated went on to college. At that time, we parents were unaware that high school could be such a destructive an environment. All her high school friends had access to their parents’ money, cars, and travel. They competed to look perfect in a school in which they were expected them to perform well academically, graduate, and progress on to a good college.

Risk factors for eating disorders.

There are known risk factors for eating disorders. Obviously, my daughter assimilated her over-achieving doctor-parents’ unspoken, yet high, expectations. We awarded her A’s and extracurricular activities with tremendous praise. She was a typical achiever – a socially adept middle child peacekeeper and perfectionist. She returned from her summer as a camp counselor and calmly announced that she was “fat and needed to go on a diet.” At that time she was thin and muscular, weighing around 110 pounds. She began her junior year of high school taking three AP classes and serving as captain of her swim team. And there was that extra evening SAT prep course.

As she progressed along through the fall of her junior year, she ate very little. She continued to swim two hours every day, but, she began to withdraw to her room upstairs each evening, claiming the need to study. Her mood seemed anxious, yet she complained very little about her workload. When questioned about her mood, or her lack of eating, she replied that she was fine, not hungry, and simply concerned about all the work she had to do. She would not talk to us, her parents, about her worries, even when we asked her directly.
As the school year progressed, our daughter continued to appear anxious and unhappy. She began to complain of an upset stomach, and she began to lose weight. Her pediatrician opined that she had gastroesophageal reflux and prescribed antacids for her. All the puzzle pieces fit together after my discussion with her best friend’s mother. She told me that my daughter was not eating at her house and not eating at school. I already knew she was not eating at our house. My beautiful teenage daughter had developed an acute eating disorder.

Signs of an eating disorder. 

If you look closely, you may recognize early signs of an eating disorder in your teenage daughter. If you recognize similar behaviors in your daughter, will you know what to do? If you ask your teen what she is thinking or worried about, you will rarely get a straight answer. Can you review the images that she sees as she scrolls through pictures on Instagram? Does she search for topics, such as dieting, fitness, weight loss, bikini body, or girl power? If so, there are many Instagram ads, so called “sponsored posts”, that she will regularly see as a result of her searches. These ads appear within her feed looking like her friends’ posts. The more often she clicks on these posts, the more often these ads will appear. In other words, the Instagram algorithm shows her more of what she has searched for.

Parents can be on the lookout for early physical signs of an eating disorder. Girls may claim to be “not hungry,” or lose weight rapidly. They may refuse to join the family for sit-down meals, or refuse to eat food from certain food groups. You may catch them meticulously counting calories, or showing a new obsession with exercise. Your daughter may display unusual moodiness, or outwardly express worry about how her body looks. Even worse, she may claim to be “fat.” Some girls hoard food, eat past fullness, and use laxatives or induced vomiting. Finally, your daughter may constantly compare herself to thin friends or influencers on Instagram. She may become obsessed with her Instagram feed.

Parents can get help.

What should you do if you see these signs in your daughter? Parents must talk with their daughter’s pediatrician. Pediatricians nowadays are more aware of how to diagnose and manage eating disorders and how these disorders are linked to social media. They understand how peer pressure, both at school and on social media, contribute to the problem. There is helpful information at Healthy Children.org. You can contact the National Eating Disorders Organization helpline 24/7. Their website has a wealth of information to help parents deal with their daughter’s behavior.

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