Up until recently, there have only been anecdotal reports about rising eating disorder incidence and consequence during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, however, we have scientific data to back this devastating fact up. Sadly, inpatient admissions, hospital bed stays, as well as outpatient care for adolescents and young adults have increased significantly over the course of the pandemic1, compared with the stable volumes of numbers previously. This raises legitimate concerns that the negative mental health consequences of the pandemic will remain massive, far reaching, and will be with us for the long term2 .
We have also recently discovered how Facebook and their company, Instagram, have been aware of the detrimental effects of their social media platforms, as reported first by The Wall Street Journal3. In fact, it was discovered that in a 2019 Facebook slideshow to their employees about research on girls with body image issues, Instagram was found to make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls and most teens felt that Instagram was to blame for increases in their rates of anxiety and depression. Since about 22 million teens long on to Instagram each day, that is a huge amount of young people that are influenced.
Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three teen girls and most teens felt that Instagram was to blame for increases in their rates of anxiety and depression.WSJ
The Wall Street Journal article goes on to find that in five different company presentations over an 18-month period ending this past spring, researchers found that some of the problems girls experienced were specific only to Instagram, and not to broader social media. This was true especially regarding social comparison; when people assess their own value in relation to the attractiveness, wealth and success of others. The tendency of users of Instagram is to share only the best moments, those pictures that are perfect and flawless. This focus can create an unhealthy sense of self, increased body dissatisfaction, and depression. There are algorithms and aspects to Instagram that can create the perfect storm for insecurity, self-doubt, and lower self-esteem.
And while we recognize that this is a serious problem, we simply cannot blame all body image issues on Facebook or Instagram as there are myriads of influences on girls, including clothing stores, malls, books, magazines, other social media platforms, culture, peers, teachers, even parents. To reduce and/or eradicate a problem, we must get to the root of it. When we look at all the possible areas of influence for our girls and factor in the large increases of eating disorders and their complications during the pandemic, we see how critical prevention programs really are. These programs address the roots of the issues and give the girls coping mechanism and strategies.
Prevention programs cannot only address body image but must focus on self-esteem and self-confidence as well. These programs must address all aspects of risk, not just the physical dissatisfaction and discontent. If a girl feels happy, loved, and accepted for who she is, the likelihood of an eating disorder or even anxiety or depression cropping up, will be greatly reduced. We need to build the girls up and help them recognize and appreciate the unique talents and abilities each of them possesses.
Stay tuned as I have an exciting announcement regarding this idea that I hope to share very soon….
- J.A. Lin, S.M. Hartman-Munick, M.R. Kells, et al. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the number of adolescents/young adults seeking eating disorder-related care. Journal of Adolescent Health, (2021).
- G. Belkin, S. Appleton, K. Langlois. Reimagining mental health systems post COVID-19. The Lancet Planet Health, 5 (2021).