Facebook and Eating Disorders: Ambiva-like-ness

Man, I wish I was still in graduate school. How much more fun it would have been with the Internet! Heck, you can even get your dissertation to go viral on the Internet without publishing it! And doing research  without even going to the library or dealing with the Interlibrary Loan Librarian...bliss.

Listen, my graduate degree is in "Social Dimensions of Natural Resource Management," so who am I to talk, right? A Master's in Ecotourism may sound flighty now, but at the time it was very exciting (to me and my long-suffering family and advisor). But, let's talk. If your research consists of gathering data from Facebook you are certainly cutting edge but the fact that the media will automatically LIKE it may skew its significance, no? My news feeds were clogged this week with articles all over the world about how Facebook "causes" eating disorders. Drilling deeper it seems that these articles are based on a press release based on a dissertation that has not been published. The conclusions of that study, at least as reported, actually go so far as to say that parents can prevent eating disorders by being more involved in the online activities of their daughters.


OK, let's review. An increased interest in Facebook, a SOCIAL network heavily focused on visual appearance and ephemeral social connections might be diagnostic of a focus common to sufferers of eating disorders, but "risk" and "cause" are not words to throw around lightly. An increased involvement by parents in their children's everyday lives is certainly correlated with healthy families, but hardly a causal relationship - the two come from the same source. Again, correlation is not cause, and changing one aspect of our parenting does not necessarily change the outcomes or predispositions of our kids.

(I won't even begin to belabor the issue of whether you can teach healthy body image or self-esteem and how that relates to eating disorders. Let's just say the relationship is likely not causal. And these are important for ALL parents.)

Now, does it matter if the news cycle gets it wrong here? What's the harm in people thinking that Facebook users more prone to developing eating disorders?  Heck, even asthma can be traced to the evil social network! Facebook is silly and unnecessary, and a waste of time anyway. Well, for starters if you think that closing down your daughter's beloved Facebook is going to prevent her eating disorder you are going to be disappointed. In addition, if you think that what's going on at Facebook is bad, don't try to imagine the school, the gym, and the minds of eating disorder patients. Shutting down the outlet doesn't get rid of the problem.

This is a mental illness -- a brain disorder -- not an appearance or a behavioral problem one catches or creates. Eating disorders aren't a diet or a desire to be thin - thought they may look that way. I'm interested in a development about Facebook using NEDA Facebook using NEDA to help them find worrying content - which could be a good thing. Not that identifying people with eating disorders and telling them so will necessarily help the sufferer (I don't believe it will), but I do believe it is a good idea to not normalize disordered eating and behaviors in public - and Facebook is mighty public. It is a good idea for us to recognize mental illness and not mistake it for personal choice - but that's not happening with this coverage or, so far, the reaction. Just more misunderstanding and misplaced blame.

But, oh so easy to Google and Twitter and cluck and pity.


  1. Hi Laura,
    I don't find the words "brain disorder threatening." I also feel that correlation doesn't mean causation. people may be looking to facebook for ed materials, but before that it was magazines, movies, books or websites.

    If people want these materials they will seek them out. facebook is different because it allows people to post pictures of their new shapes so that contests can be played out in a virtual world. closing down facebook will stop that behavior, but it won't stop the thoughts and body comparison in general until treatment is sought.

  2. Hi Laura,

    I think you might have missed the issue just slightly. I am a recovering anorexic, and was in the depths of my disorder and also in a treatment center just as facebook was really taking off. Recently, I made a decision to give up facebook for my recovery's sake. Facebook is simply another, much more convenient, means to further the ed "community" that is so prevalent and so destructive. Before facebook, myself and many of my ed friends were heavily involved in online ed sites. FB simply made these more public and more accessible. Now, if I wanted to satisfy the voyeuristic desire of my eating disorder, all I would have to do is read my newsfeed or check out recently updated photos. I had friends from all over the country not because I personally knew them, but because "I went to such and such center and oh wow you were then when such and such was there and did you know such and such?" In short, I would say that eating disorders have a need to feel like a part of a community, since they are so isolating from "normal" society. Facebook provides a convenient and socially acceptable means of doing so. So while I don't agree that facebook alone can cause an ed (obviously), it can provide the means for curious or already sick girls to further enmesh themselves in their illness. It's like adding another log to an already raging fire. I know was for me.

  3. I agree. I'm not saying FB doesn't have an effect, or isn't effected by eating disorders. I'm concerned that the idea that FB is "causing" them is off-based and will lead people to demonize Facebook without really better understanding eating disorders. But if my daughter had been ill and Facebook had been part of the picture you can be darn sure we would have addressed it!


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