Instagram has been found to be damaging to young people’s mental health and even associated with the eating disorder orthorexia nervosa. Vanessa Chalmers finds out how to know if you’re at risk
Today, Instagram has been ranked as having the worst effect on young people’s mental health in a new report. In a survey of almost 1,500 Britons aged 14 to 24, The Royal Society for Public Health found that young people were most likely to feel depressed and lonely after using the app, as well as associating it with negative attributes and low self-esteem, resulting in poor body image and lack of sleep.
However, it doesn’t end there. More specifically, a recent study by University College London found a link between high Instagram use and the eating disorder orthorexia nervosa. Scrolling through a feed of green smoothies and yoga posing is beginning to show evidence of leaving a damaging mark.
Orthorexia nervosa is a healthy eating obsession
Researchers surveyed 680 females with an average healthy BMI about what social media they use and how often. They also asked which of 19 food types the ate, and used a questionnaire to assess how many orthorexic symptoms they possess. In the publication on the National Library of Medicine, they concluded that high Instagram use is associated with a greater tendency towards orthorexia nervosa (ON), and interestingly, no other social media platform has the same effect.
ON is an illness and obsession with eating healthily, whereby people showing symptoms eat more fruit and vegetables, cut out food groups such as white carbohydrates, shop in health food stores, exercise and rarely drink alcohol. It sounds like simple healthy lifestyle choices, right? The difference is ON is also associated with significant dietary restrictions, malnutrition and social isolation. There is an overlap with both obsessive compulsive disorder and anorexia, sharing traits of rituals and intrusive thoughts for the former and perfectionism and guilt over food for the latter.
The researchers note that ON is currently more prevalent with yoga instructors, dietitians, nutrition students and exercise science students compared to the general population, where it is estimated to be less than one per cent.
As well as this, the Independent reported on a paper last week which points out that Instagramming our food can have an effect on later enjoyment. Over exposure to food (through looking at it or taking photos) makes you bored of the food before you’ve even began eating it, with the eating becoming secondary to the perfect filter online.
According to the UCL researchers, 54 per cent of the us are turning to their feeds to discover and share food experiences, and 42 per cent using it to seek advice about food. Therefore, the harm of the ‘clean eating’ trend is already a hot topic.
We see social media influencers as an authority who we look up to
Why Instagram is the worst culprit
Of course, during an obesity epidemic, encouraging healthy eating is a good thing. Using Instagram to share a weight loss journey may be the key to one persons success. Finding fellow fitness fanatics and sharing recipes is another’s ticket to like-minded friends.
On the other hand, a scroll though social media can be a knock to our self confidence, or more seriously, fuel for a mental illness. The authors suggested these three reasons for the link between Instagram and the eating disorder:
- Firstly, Instagram is all about the pictures. Taking the perfect shot of your protein pancakes means more likes, and a great platform to attract other healthy eaters.
- Secondly, all the posts you see are from people you follow (or similar, on the explore page). Following tons of the #fitfam crew or slim food bloggers will expose you to a bombardment of extreme health messages, allowing for normalisation of behaviours which users may feel pressures to conform to.
- Thirdly, we see social media influencers as an authority who we look up to. Their posts and words reach millions of people looking for answers and advice, turning to popular ‘celebrity’ like figures rather than experts.
The participants in the study were recruited through the health community on social media, and although the sample size was small, the authors point out there are now over 500 million users on Instagram worldwide, meaning this could be very worrying on a population level.
When healthy becomes unhealthy – are you at risk?
Although this research shines a serious light on social media’s impact on our health, leading UK eating disorder charity Beat says there is no evidence that social media use can directly cause eating disorders. ‘Research is telling us that they are genetically and biologically based’, Hannah Goran, a spokesperson for Beat, said. ‘The increasing amount of emphasis on healthy eating and on body muscle and tone, including on social media, could exacerbate the illness in someone who is already suffering or vulnerable.’
come off Instagram for a few days and see how you feel.
So, how do we know when our interest in healthy living has become an obsession?
‘The most important thing is to be conscious of what you are thinking’, says Jacqueline Hurst, a hypnotherapist, life coach and specialist in emotional eating/body image issues and weight management. ‘If you’re not aware of what you’re doing, it’s very hard to change the behaviour. After going on Instagram, ask yourself how you are feeling when you look at people fitter or thinner than you. Or whether you feel good enough if you aren’t making avocado on toast every day. When you make your breakfast, do you question if you are doing it wrong? If you think it is effecting you, come off for a few days and see how you feel.’
At the moment, orthorexia nervosa is not recognised as an official eating disorder diagnosis. According to Beat, this is because it doesn’t have it’s own specific treatment pathway (which is to say that clinicians have not identified a distinct way to treat it the way they have anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, for instance). ‘When someone is diagnosed as having an eating disorder that doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria for anorexia, binge eating disorder, or bulimia, they are considered to have “other specified feeding or eating disorder” and treated according to the most appropriate treatment pathway’, Hannah Goran, a spokesperson for Beat said.
This isn’t to say the eating disorder is unnoticed. Jacqueline says it has been discussed for years and people are realising how dangerous it has become. ‘Orthorexia is very much about cutting out food groups. This ‘clean eating’ is a tricky word to begin with, because it makes some foods appear dirty or wrong.
People will only eat green cabbage which they will only get from the farmers’ market on a Sunday
‘It’s like ‘this week I’m cutting out carbohydrates, next week I’m not going to eat carbohydrates or dairy, and then the next week I’ll stop eating gluten, too.’ What you find is people are allowing themselves to eat less and less until all they can eat is green cabbage which they will only get from the farmer’s market on Sunday. It is debilitating and effects a lot of people’, she says.
The orthorexia nervosa quiz
Dr Steven Bratman originally coined the term in 1996. The Authorised Bratman Orthorexia Self-Test can be found here, and in his book, he uses this quiz to determine someone’s susceptibility. It’s worth having a read of this brief version if you are concerned about whether you’re affected:
1) Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about food?
2) Do you plan tomorrow’s food today?
3) Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
4) Have you found that as the quality of your diet has increased, the quality of your life has correspondingly diminished?
5) Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?
6) Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed to eat the food you believe is right?
7) Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating healthy food? Do you look down on others who don’t?
8) Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
9) Does your diet socially isolate you?
10) When eating the way you are supposed to, do you feel a peaceful sense of total control?