Are social media platforms making eating disorders in children worse?

At least one school district in Seattle thinks so. Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has filed a suit in US District Court alleging that “defendants [social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat] affirmatively recommend and promote harmful content to youth, such as pro-anorexia and eating disorder content.” Essentially it appears SPS is saying such content exacerbates eating disorder symptoms and undermines effective treatment.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the issue is complicated. First some medical facts: eating disorders are biological brain disorders that are highly heritable (estimates – based on twin studies and genome-wide analyses – are as high as 74%; as a reference, that heritability is similar to the heritability of height in humans is estimated around 80%). This means eating disorders run in families and are emphatically NOT lifestyle “choices”, volitional behaviors on the part of patients, the result of bad parenting or the effects of images on social media. Such theories and explanations were once common but have in recent years been completely debunked by rigorous scientific studies (see above).   

At Kartini Clinic we like to put it this way: parents don’t cause eating disorders and children don’t choose to have them. Period.

So what about the role of social media? 

Consider the following analogy: can a child develop type 2 diabetes (T2DM) from looking at pictures of cheeseburgers? I think most of us would agree this sounds implausible and not very scientific. That’s probably because we understand and acknowledge T2DM to be a biological condition caused by complex interactions of genetics and environment. Eating disorders such as anorexia are no different.

This is not to say social media messaging can’t do any harm, for example by triggering behaviors or making children feel worse about themselves, which in turn could undermine effective treatment. After all, SPS is not alleging that social media platforms cause eating disorders but rather that they are contributing meaningfully (and, crucially, knowingly) to the disease burden on children suffering from these potentially devastating and deadly illnesses. 

At Kartini Clinic we certainly do share these concerns, and we would wholeheartedly support efforts such as additional mental health professionals in schools, lesson plans and additional training for teachers  provided they are grounded in a scientific understanding of these illnesses. Ultimately the key is to ensure that eating disorders are diagnosed promptly and treated effectively using evidence-based practices (i.e. grounding diagnosis and treatment in physical medicine and using behavioral health interventions such as family-centered treatment: families are almost always part of the solution to treatment in children, not part of the problem). Could the social media companies do better? Certainly. Perhaps they could “pair” content of concern with objective information about the causes, symptoms and potential for effective, life saving treatment of eating disorders in children. Although they aren’t directly responsible for these terrible illnesses, social media platforms could be powerful allies in helping us address this problem more effectively.

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