A quick search of Twitter, Instagram or TikTok using the hashtag #thinspo reveals a deeply troubling corner of social media. Pro-eating disorder (pro-ED) communities are well established on these platforms and pose a serious threat to the mental and physical health of young people.
It’s hard to avoid the endless stream of diet trends, weight loss tips, and other types of “thinspiration” on social media. My own Instagram feed is flooded with posts titled “What I eat during the day”, “How I lost 10 pounds in 2 weeks” or “Lose belly fat with this exercise”, all of which encourage continued fitness. slimming.
More extreme Pro-ED content promotes and enhances calorie restriction, extreme exercise, or purging using laxative tea. These posts often carry the hashtags #thinspo or #weight loss, making it easy for people to connect with Pro-ED communities.
Disturbingly, the hashtags #proana and #promia are commonly used by pro-ED content creators to identify pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia content. While Instagram and Tik Tok have banned the use of these hashtags, creators now deliberately spell them to avoid detection. Some platforms, including Twitter, have not yet established regulations for this type of content.
Pro-ED communities thrive on social media and the consequences are appalling.
This type of content leads people to pursue and achieve dangerous weight goals. A recent study by Johannes Feldhege and colleagues at the University of Heidelberg describes the impact of pro-ED social media communities on the health and attitudes of active participants. Many people who join these communities experience sustained weight loss throughout their membership.
Additionally, community members’ goal weights tend to decrease more and more as they continue to interact with pro-ED content. Underweight people who encounter these communities are particularly at risk of adopting dangerously low weight goals.
People who are underweight or engage in eating disorder behaviors are at risk for serious health problems, including anemia, insomnia, hypothermia, immunodeficiency, and infertility.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses that affect nearly 5% of Canadians every year, especially young women. These disorders carry social stigmas that generate feelings of shame, causing people to hide their difficulties from friends and family. It can be a very isolating experience. Pro-ED communities provide a platform for people to connect over shared experiences. Despite feeling invisible in the real world, people struggling with body image or eating disorders can feel validated by pro-ED content on social media.
The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified feelings of anxiety and isolation among our young people. People are more sensitive than ever to the toxic effects of pro-ED content. In a silver lining, Feldhege’s research found that many pro-ED communities have been overwhelmed by posts about body positivity and recovery from eating disorders during the pandemic. Disruptions to therapy and social media and the increased difficulty in hiding symptoms during lockdowns may prompt people to seek genuine support from social media platforms.
Despite this shift, pro-ED content remains a widespread concern. Vulnerable youth continue to be drawn into toxic communities that directly encourage extremely dangerous behaviors. The appalling lack of awareness and stigma of eating disorders has people seeking support and validation from unprofessional and unregulated internet content.
Society must take responsibility for teaching young people what it means to have healthy relationships with food and their bodies. Social media is a powerful tool that can change social perspectives and educate people about realistic health goals. Only by improving knowledge about eating disorders can we hope to reduce the demand for toxic support networks and inspire our young people to lead healthy lives.