Social media and eating disorders: a dangerous two-way street | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Social media and eating disorders: a dangerous two-way street

The influence of social media on the risk and development of eating disorders is well-documented – but does this go both ways?

A new research paper from the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Thompson Institute is examining that relationship in reverse, with a new question:

How are eating disorders affecting the way people interact with social media?

It’s not easy to answer.

“So little has been done in this area,” says PHD candidate and lead author Taliah Prince.

“No studies have actually used neuroimaging to look specifically at how someone with an eating disorder engages with social media.”

Taliah and researchers from the Thompson Institute have conducted a review, comparing Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans from 38 studies identifying impairments in social cognition in the brains of young people with eating disorders.

Social cognition refers to how our brains process and interpret the information that feeds our social interactions. Eating disorders can physically impair the brain’s ability to do this, for example the strain of anorexia on the brain can impact memory and decision-making abilities.

By identifying which impairments are present in people with eating disorders, a complicated picture begins to emerge of how that could manifest on social media.

“It’s interesting that social cognition could impact social media use in such a multifaceted way. Different eating disorders could present similar impairments that affect social media interactions in similar ways. For example, impairments in reward processing may increase the likelihood of seeking negative evaluations online, or making upward social comparisons” Taliah said.

“But other impairments could manifest in vastly different behaviours. People with bulimia are more impacted by their emotional state, which then cause impairments in attention and impulsivity and could lead to higher levels of social media addiction for example.”

The rise of social media has coincided with a rise in eating disorders.

They’re more than twice as prevalent as they were 20 years ago.

But the sudden explosion of social media into our lives means the science behind this relationship has a lot of catching up to do, according to University of South Australia’s Dr Larisa McLoughlin who supervised the research.

“Eating disorders and interaction with social media is complex and intertwined,” Dr McLoughlin said.

“Further research is needed (especially longitudinal research) to understand cognition development in relation to eating disorders as well as social interactions, particularly in regard to social media use”.

“Eating disorders are one of the leading causes of death in adolescents and they are associated with so many other mental health problems,” Taliah said.

“It's really important to research, identify and target some of the underlying mechanisms that may contribute to the onset and the maintenance of these disorders.”

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