Your eating disorder and the internet. A toxic mix?

If you’re living with an eating disorder, you’ll already know that the internet can be both a blessing and a curse.

It can provide support, comfort, advice, and assistance. But it can also be a source of cues that trigger negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours about food and your body.

In this post, Dr Amy Harrison, Senior Associate with Altum Health, explains how modern technology can be both helpful and challenging for someone living with an eating disorder.

She also shares her recommendations for managing your use of modern technology to help you get the most out of what’s available, while avoiding the negative triggers as much as possible.

It could be that some of the things mentioned in this post may not present a problem to you, yet for others, they could make eating disorder recovery much more difficult. It’s important to remember that we are all different, and there are lots of different ways that people experience eating disorders.

If you’re experiencing an eating disorder within your family, you might find our ‘Living with an Eating Disorder in your Family’ support guide helpful.

It contains advice on how to help your loved one, the treatments that are available, what to expect during the recovery process, and how to get help from the trained and licensed professionals in our team. Inside you’ll also find guidance on how to support the rest of the family, such as siblings, at this time.

The thing about the internet is, it makes everything more easily accessible

15-20 years ago you might only knowingly bump into another person with an eating disorder in the context of a treatment centre. 

Now, it’s fairly easy to come across others with eating disorders on the internet, within social media and online forums.

While this can help you to feel less alone and more connected with people experiencing similar struggles, it can also fuel unhealthy eating disorder behaviours.

For example, it can be easy to make a mistake and fall into content that involves ‘pro-eating disorder discussions’ online, helping to keep you stuck in your eating disorder, which is incredibly dangerous.

Online content is available 24/7

In the past, content was consumed largely in the form of magazines, billboards, film and TV. 

Nowadays, the internet makes it possible to encounter limitless content and therefore potential triggers and cues for eating disorder thoughts and behaviours. 

And with smart devices and mobile apps, the internet is at our fingertips whenever and wherever we wish, so these triggers and cues are accessible all day long.

We all know just how easy it is to get sucked into a rabbit hole of online content.

It can make us draw unrealistic comparisons

Young people in the past would have mainly been comparing themselves with other people around them, for example those in your class or workplace, or perhaps models in magazines. Now, there’s an endless pool of people to compare yourself to online. 

The problem is, the images we see on the internet are often altered, so you’re not comparing ‘like with like’. 

Understandably, it can be distressing if you think you have to look like something that’s not actually real and that’s neither achievable nor attainable. 

Online content creators and influencers don’t always intend for their content to be provocative, but it often is for someone with an eating disorder.

Can your relationship with the internet encourage an eating disorder?

The internet is not all bad, but it can present opportunities to fuel an eating disorder. We’ll look at three examples, below.

1. Social media consumption

The content you view on social media is personalised for you based on your preferences.

What this means, is that if you’re engaging with a lot of images of very thin bodies, for example, your social media feed will serve you more of the same content. 

This further biases you to think that everyone looks like that, or that these body types are ‘typical’, because these are the only images you’re being presented with. 

For someone with an eating disorder, this cycle could lead to increased body dissatisfaction, particularly if you’re vulnerable or have low self-esteem.

2. Food delivery apps

Food delivery apps make it quick and easy to order food directly to your door.

For those people who struggle with losing control of their eating, for example binge eating disorder, these apps can help to facilitate the unhelpful behaviours associated with this condition.

These apps also provide convenience, which removes some of the barriers to bingeing. So, it can make it harder to resist if the urge to binge kicks in.

3. Calorie counting apps

Calorie counting apps mainly focus on the micro details; allowing the user to log exercise versus calories consumed. 

This can be distressing to record if you have an eating disorder, and may encourage the eating disorder to become competitive, reducing calorie intake compared with each previous day, for example.

This can be triggering for someone living with an eating disorder and doesn’t promote a healthy relationship between food and exercise.

How to create a more positive relationship with online tools when living with an eating disorder

  1. Analyse your social media intake

Your relationship with social media comes down to who and what you follow and what you choose to look at. 

This will depend on you as an individual, where you are in your recovery, and your own health and wellbeing.

If you have a good sense of self-worth, and you engage with inspiring, enjoyable content, social media can be very helpful. 

But, if your feed contains lots of disordered eating content, we recommend you ask a loved one or someone assisting you with your recovery to help you assess the accounts you’re following:

  • Who’s producing the content you’re consuming?
  • Are they a certified or qualified person?
  • Are these people doing well in their own recovery, or are they embedded in their eating disorder?
  • Are these good accounts to be following at this stage in your recovery?
  • How much time are you spending engaging with this material each day; could you be using your time for other things?

Think about whether the way you’re using the internet and social media is working well for you, and if not, what could serve you better? 

You’ve got to be empowered enough to advocate for yourself, by thinking: I don’t have to look at this, it’s not helping me or making me feel good. I’m going to put my attention elsewhere.  

  1. Take control

It’s difficult to live in the modern era without phones or apps. But if you find yourself on social media a lot, give yourself a rest from it. Limit your use, have a break, or time away from the internet.  

As with anything, the more you do something, the more your brain becomes stuck on it, so it might be that you want to do something different to benefit your health and wellbeing. 

Another solution could be to create an alternative social media account that doesn’t follow accounts that feature people, but rather scenery – like incredible holiday locations, or animals – funny cat videos serve a great purpose here! Aim for content that is comforting, not triggering. 

It’s also possible to filter out weight-loss ads from your Instagram feed, so you’ll see fewer of them. If you have this functionality (it’s gradually being rolled out), you’ll find this within your settings (ads > ad topics > body weight control > choose ‘see less’).

Remember, even though social media was originally designed to connect people, unless you’re using forums or platforms where you can talk to others, it can be quite isolating. It might just be that you’re consuming content and that’s not a form of social connection.

  1. Review the most suitable apps and platforms for you

With our earlier example of how food delivery apps can create challenges for those living with an eating disorder, you could contact your bank and instruct them to block transactions to the relevant companies if you wish.

Longer term, you’ll need to work on resisting the temptation yourself. This is something we can support you with during eating disorder therapy

Something such as a grocery shopping app can actually be really beneficial for someone living with an eating disorder. It can help you to stick to a meal plan without the stress and strain of going to a supermarket, a task that can be difficult to do on your own.

Being able to easily make repeat orders can make things simpler by reducing the choices you have to make, and can help to support regular eating by making sure you have items that you are comfortable eating readily available at home.

The internet can be both friend and foe, creating challenges for those living with an eating disorder, but also creating a space for people to talk about their struggles, get peer support, advice, comfort and coaching from others who have similar experiences. Not just for patients, but their loved ones, too.

And, if you’re the parent or carer of someone living with an eating disorder, I hope this has helped you to get to grips with how life has changed, thanks to the internet, and how that could be fuelling your loved one’s challenges.

For more support with handling having an eating disorder in your family, don’t forget to download your free copy of our family support guide – Living with an Eating Disorder in your Family. 

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