When I was 15, I was diagnosed with anorexia. I have fully recovered, unlike many of my peers, but it was an uphill battle.
One thing I’m grateful for is that during the years that I suffered the most from the disease, I didn’t have access to Instagram, with its continuous feed showing inaccessible body images that young people are exposed to today. ‘hui. But I had Facebook.
I vividly remember coming home from treatment and immediately reconnecting with treatment friends on Facebook. I spent every evening on our family’s desktop comparing myself to them: had they lost weight? Did they resume treatment? It was extremely stimulating to be in contact with people whom I considered “sicker” than me.
To achieve true recovery, I learned to separate myself from people who trigger me. I’ve learned to spend more time actively interacting with recovery-focused peers instead of scrolling through full body photos online. I’ve learned to limit my time on Facebook and spend time building relationships in real life.
This month the world woke up to what survivors like me have known for years. Social media is contributing to a growing number of men and women struggling with a range of body image issues, from an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise to an eating disorder in its own right. More research on the impact is still needed, but the anecdotes speak volumes. I know this because I hear them every day from the front lines.
We know that teens spend an average of seven hours a day on their phones, and many spend the majority of that time on social media. A young woman I mentor recently showed me her Instagram feed: half include people they’ve met in treatment who are actively struggling to recover, and the other half are filled with diet influencers who’ve been in touch with her. suggested by the algorithm or by school friends who manipulated their photos using beautification editing tools. During the pandemic, she told me she was spending up to 10 hours a day on Instagram, which would send her into daily spirals of self-loathing and food restriction.
It is almost impossible to convince teens like this young woman to delete Instagram. But there are immediate steps we can take to reduce the damage and amplify the positive sides of social media.
On the one hand, I share my personal Instagram feed with some teens I work with as an example of how they can organize a recovery-oriented community. I suggest they follow body positive influencers in a wide range of shapes and sizes. I share my favorite stories about eating disorder recovery and mental health awareness. I suggest watching “Live Feeds” with inspirations of recovery and people doing cool things in the world that have nothing to do with food and the body.
The interactions I have had with teenagers may seem like a simple little act, but they can have a huge ripple effect. Instagram and Facebook now bear the responsibility of replicating this work on a large scale. We can dramatically reduce damage and even increase mental well-being, community, and body satisfaction if we harness social media the right way. It will take honesty, soul searching, and collaboration with community leaders, but I think we can make these platforms safer for teens.
In the meantime, we need to make sure that quality treatment is available to all people with an eating disorder, which we know is the second deadliest mental illness. 80% of the 30 million Americans who develop an eating disorder will never get treatment, and less than 5% will access effective treatment. We have a responsibility to reduce the damage done by social media platforms like Instagram, and an even greater responsibility to ensure that when people have been hurt, they have the resources they need to fully heal.
Kristina Saffran is the co-founder and CEO of Equip.