Is TikTok Pushing Eating Disorder Content to Teens?

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Tiktok is one of the most popular social media platforms among teenagers. In the US, 63% of 13-17 year olds use the site. Tiktok and other forms of social media can have a big impact on the way that young people understand themselves and the world around them.

Some of the content shared on Tiktok may make young people more vulnerable to developing eating disorders. This includes content that idealises a specific body shape, diet restrictions, or strict exercise routines, such as “fitspiration” posts. 

Other content directly promotes anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders as a lifestyle choice, using motivational language without recognition of their mental and physical harm.

This blog looks into the way that Tiktok shows young people pro-eating disorder content or content that makes developing eating disorders more likely. It also outlines the treatment available for eating disorder recovery.

What Is the Link Between Social Media and Eating Disorders?

Many different factors can contribute to the development of eating disorders in teens, including body image concerns and body dissatisfaction. 

Young people who experience body dissatisfaction may engage in disordered eating behaviours to try and change their body shape to what they perceive as ‘ideal’. These behaviours often become more and more strict, including diet restriction and excessive exercise.

Teenagers might experience feelings of failure or self-loathing when they see body shape is different to how they want it to be, driving more disordered eating behaviours.

Young people receive information about body image and ideals from many different places, including conversations with friends and families or films and other types of media. But exposure to social media may have a big impact on these ideals. Research suggests that social media can:

  • encourage teenagers to compare themselves to other people, creating a difference between their actual body and their ideal body
  • cause teenagers to place their self-value in their appearance and bodies and view themselves from another person’s perspective, encouraging self-objectification
  • promote unrealistic and specific beauty ideals, such as ‘thinness’ or ‘fitness’ that cause young people to be dissatisfied with their own bodies

Research shows that appearance and fitness-focused social media content is linked to a higher risk of disordered eating behaviours. As young people continue to spend large amounts of time on social media, it may play a significant role in the development of eating disorders.

‘Thinspiration’ and ‘Fitspiration’ Tiktok Content

‘Thinspiration’ and ‘fitspiration’ are two types of Tiktok content that can promote specific body ideals to teenagers and adolescents.

‘Thinspiration’ posts promote a very thin body ideal through photos, personal stories, and ‘advice’ to other people. These posts often constitute pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia content, describing eating disorders as a lifestyle choice. While ‘thinspiration’ hashtags have been banned on Tiktok and other platforms, young people still find and share content through adapted hashtags that are still allowed.

‘Fitspiration’ posts claim to encourage a ‘healthy’ lifestyle. But in many cases, ‘healthy’ is connected to strict eating and exercise routines and specific body ideals. ‘Fitspiration’ often presents a muscular, toned body type as the ideal, ‘healthy’ body. This can cause young people to feel dissatisfied with their own body shape and engage in stricter food and exercise routines to try and meet the muscular ideal. While thin body ideals are usually connected to feminine bodies, ‘fitness’ ideals also target men and masculinity. 

A 2022 study explored the effect of ‘thinspiration’ and ‘fitspiration’ Tiktok content on female adolescents in the US. It found that ‘thinspiration’ posts had a heavy emphasis on unrealistic body ideals and led to conversations about eating disorders. ‘Fitspiration posts’ also caused comments about negative body image and weight loss.

How Does Tiktok Show Content to Teens?

Tiktok works using algorithms that show teenagers personalised content based on which videos they watch, like or dislike, video information (including hashtags), and their accounts. Unlike other social media platforms, they can receive content from anyone else using the site, not just people they follow.

This means that teenagers who are watching videos about weight loss or calorie counting may quickly be shown even more eating-related information on their main feed, including fitspiration content, thinspiration content, and other posts that directly promote or increase the risk of eating disorders.

Can Tiktok Moderate Pro-Anorexia and Pro-Bulimia Content?

Eating-related content on Tiktok includes posts like fitspiration that can lead to body dissatisfaction, contributing to or maintaining eating disorders. But their eating-related content directly promotes eating disorders as a lifestyle choice (rather than a mental health issue).

These posts, known as pro-Ana and pro-Mia content, should be moderated by Tiktok. But with the high number of Tiktok accounts and accessible content, this can be difficult. Users often misspell banned hashtags or replace some letters with symbols so that they can keep sharing content.

Teenagers on Tiktok also watch and engage in challenges – where one Tiktok user posts a video of them doing something, and others are encouraged to try the same thing. Some of these challenges clearly promote and normalise eating disorders. However, the problematic content of these challenges may be difficult to understand through their hashtags, making them harder to moderate.

Moderating pro-eating disorder content on Tiktok is a necessary part of keeping young people using the site safe. But it’s important to remember that it’s not only pro-ED content that is harmful. Other permitted content that idealises certain body shapes and weight (such as some health and fitness posts) also increases the risk of disordered eating among teens.

How Do Children and Adolescents with Eating Disorders Use Tiktok?

Social media platforms like Tiktok may help to maintain eating disorders among teenagers living with the conditions, receiving outpatient treatment or staying in eating disorder treatment centres.

One study among young people receiving treatment for eating disorders found that Tiktok was the most used social media site for 62.8% of teenagers and young people. ‘Diet’ was the most frequently used topic category. 

For 59% of children and adolescents, Tiktok reduced their self-esteem. Low self-esteem often underpins disordered eating behaviours, contributing to and maintaining eating disorders. This means that using Tiktok may complicate a young person’s recovery journey or make it more likely that they’ll develop an ED.

Eating Disorders Treatment and Recovery

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions, but there is help and support available. With professional treatment, young people can recover from eating disorders and reclaim fulfilling futures.

Eating disorder treatment can take place in residential eating disorder treatment centers or through outpatient sessions. Treatment involves medical care and interventions, different types of therapy, nutritional support and meal planning. Recovery programs for teenagers often include family interventions or centre around the family.

Effective eating disorder recovery programs address the underlying causes of eating disorders. This might mean addressing past traumas, co-occurring anxiety or depression, low self-esteem, perfectionism, or interpersonal difficulties. They may also address teenagers’ over-evaluation of shape and weight, body dissatisfaction, and body image concerns.

Some evidence-based treatment approaches for eating disorders include:

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT-E)
  • Family-based therapy (FBT)
  • Dialectical behavioural therapy
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Psychoanalytic therapy
  • Trauma therapy

The Wave Clinic: Transformative Recovery Programs for Teenagers and Young Adults

The Wave Clinic is a private residential eating disorder treatment centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Our world-leading programs set the standard for youth mental health support, combining exceptional clinical care with personal learning, vocational education, and a gap year adventure. 

Our approach focuses on building self-confidence, life skills, and a stable future for young people. We understand that recovery requires dedication and resilience, helping teenagers and young adults to put down strong foundations for the road ahead. We sensitively address experiences of trauma and co-occurring disorders alongside eating disorder treatment, encouraging inner healing and lasting change.

If you’re interested in our programs, reach out to us today. We’re making a difference in the lives of young people and their families around the world.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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