A tool which can help prevent poor relationships with body and food

“I liked my body before I downloaded TikTok….”

Social Media Use and Disordered Eating:

While the statistics may be alarming and truly hard to comprehend, one third (31.6%) of Australian adolescents engage in disordered eating behaviours within any given year. Yet despite this, it is estimated that 75% do not seek professional help.

In 2020, The Butterfly Foundation reported an increase of 34% in uptake of their support services, with the majority (85%) of callers using the resource for the first time.4 This has been attributed to stress, and most significantly, increased exposure to ‘weight-based’ stigma on social media.

Currently, platforms with video content such as YouTube and Tik Tok are where young people are most active, not just to access information but feel connected with others. Despite the benefits of social media for digital communication, research suggests sustained social media use can have a negative impact on body image, particularly among young people. Adolescents report they experience pressure to “look perfect” on social media and carefully select and edit photos to do so.5 According to Mia Findlay, a spokesperson for The Butterfly Foundation, social media platforms such as Instagram and Tik Tok can “be a minefield for people dealing with body image dissatisfaction”.6

Can you avoid triggering content?

The difficulty in avoiding triggering content on Tik Tok can be attributed to the algorithmic nature of social media, making it nearly impossible for vulnerable young people to not be exposed to it. 7 The nature of TikTok’s continuous loop of content, paired with the “For You” tailored pages, often creates echo chambers.

This means that once an individual accesses unhealthy content, it becomes more difficult to stop consuming this content as it will continue to appear in their tailored feed. This can often force engagement with negative body image biases and unhealthy diet culture.7 The platform suppresses content diversity because it misaligns with ‘high engagement posts’ which reinforce negative ideals around body image and dieting.

Media literacy campaigns are currently considered the most effective in preventing eating disorders as well as increasing awareness of these social biases.9 However, despite their success, particularly in schools, this rise in social media engagement calls for a heavier focus on social media literacy. In addition, these interventions have not yet considered the role social media influencers play in delivering health messaging.

The power of the eWOM?

The electronic word of mouth (eWOM) is another factor which contributes to young people’s health behaviours, significantly impacting how women perceive themselves and the world.10 Westerberg (2016) found that 75% of young people claim to aspire to be like Youtubers and relate more to these influencers than traditional celebrities. Moreover, young people who watch influencers more regularly believe these influencers significantly impacts their day-to-day behaviours.

Is media literacy enough?

While users may recognise these biases impacting their behaviours, the concept of practicing media literacy can be lost when constantly exposed to the abundance of content pushing the “thin, white, low-carb” image. Furthermore, the romanticisation of eating disorders on Tik Tok can cloud perspectives, with an increasing amount of juxtaposing content – weight loss tips titled ‘body positivity’ versus edited before and after photos.

Elevating discussions on media and social media literacy, targeted towards young Australians, may help to reduce the incidences of eating disorders and negative feelings towards the body.

Fortunately, there is more work currently being done to improve body image discussions and media literacy, even from a young age. For instance, The Butterfly Foundation’s primary school’s program,  Body Bright is an initiative aimed at targeting the key risk factors which contribute to body dissatisfaction in children.

This Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Cube is proud to increase discussions around body image and the need for greater media and social literacy campaigns, as well as shed light on great initiatives such as Body Bright.

If you or loved ones need psychological support for eating disorders or body image dissatisfaction, there are a range of support services available. Please contact:

  • The Butterfly Foundation: 1800 33 4673
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
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