TW – Eating disorders.
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Eating Disorders, Lockdown and Social Media – Labour Article
Monday 1 March signals the start of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, the end of another month of lockdown, and a week closer to the light at the end of the tunnel that 21 June has become for many.
I wanted to bring all these things together and discuss the impact lockdown has had on eating disorders and self-esteem. Moreover, to talk about how the prospective end of lockdown could only worsen this.
Unsurprisingly, in order to combat isolation and loneliness, many people have turned to social media throughout each lockdown. In April 2020, Brits spent an extra 37 minutes a day on social media in comparison to January. Whilst this may not seem like much, this increases the average amount of time spent on social media to just over 4 hours a day.
Between January and April 2020, Twitch users almost doubled, reaching 4.2 million visitors. Likewise, TikTok users increased from 5.4 million users to 12.9 million in the UK alone in the same timeframe.
Research has shown a correlation between time spent on social media and increased risk of eating disorders. Whilst correlation doesn’t equal causation, it is a link worth considering and paying attention to. This correlation has been widespread knowledge for many years now; the toxic promotion of unachievable ‘healthy’ lifestyles via social media has definitely been a hotly contested topic.
What impact is this having now that more people are using more social media platforms for a longer period of time?
Lockdown has already had a detrimental impact on those who suffer from eating disorders. In the March lockdown’s first week alone, UK charity, BEAT Eating Disorders, saw a 30% increase in calls to its helpline. Between March and September 2020, they reported a 97% increase.
By its nature, lockdown significantly impacts coping mechanisms and recovery as it removes routine and changes how support can be offered. Increased prevalence of stressors such as health, family, or money exacerbates this.
Lockdown has also seen the emergence of a culture of increased productivity as people find ways to spend their time. Having extra time to devote to loved ones or hobbies has been beneficial to many. However, social media has idealised this and made it a competition.
As we came out of the first and second lockdowns, the question “What did you get up to during lockdown?” brought extra pressures and anxieties to many. Mental health has taken a huge hit during this pandemic; the extra pressure to be ‘productive’ has played a huge role in this. It is important to remember that just surviving something so stressful and extreme is enough.
During the first lockdown, people were encouraged to develop a plethora of new skills. Whether that was learning a language, taking up baking, or training to run a marathon, social media seemed to be full of people trying new and exciting things. I applaud anyone who managed to do one of these things or something similar!
It is also important, however, to remember that achieving nothing extra beyond surviving is equally amazing. Finding time for new hobbies should be celebrated but in such extreme circumstances, this doesn’t need to be the norm.
I often feel like I didn’t manage anything extraordinary in the first lockdown. I just continued uni work and finished my degree as I would have anyway. Dismissing something so big sounds crazy. Whether you completed another year of school, learnt how to work digitally, or adapted to your workplace under Covid-19 restrictions; these are big achievements!
I have become even more concerned about the emphasis on productivity following the announcement of Britain’s “roadmap” out of lockdown that names 21 June as a prospective end date.
Shortly after the announcement, social media was full of proclamations of how people should spend the next months getting their “summer body” ready for an end to restrictions.
The idea of a “summer” or “beach body” is already infamous in mental health circles and the wider public. It is criticised for body-shaming anyone who deviates from the bronzed, toned norm; for creating a body standard that is unnatural or unachievable for the majority of the population.
The societal pressures and anxiety that it brings are overwhelming. This is only furthered by the idealistic lifestyles we see on social media. ‘Perfect’ bodies, perpetual positivity, and ‘clean’ diets cover only a fraction of this. The ‘summer body’ plays into society’s diet culture but manifests in a way that doesn’t seem unhealthy on the surface; strict exercising, detox drinks, and appetite suppressants.
Shortly after the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday, social media was full of people talking about their summer body goals. Tweets such as, “summer body is due on 21 June” and, “getting a summer body in time for 21 June is now my number one priority”, shows the already mounting pressure. This is dangerous and will only get worse.
The chaos, stress, and lack of routine that the pandemic and lockdowns have created has been extremely detrimental to those with eating disorders. I fear this will only get worse as post-lockdown expectations, summer pressures, and social media fuse together over the next months.
Written by Junior Labour Writer, Zoë Olsen-Groome
BEAT Eating Disorders Helpline: 0808 801 0677
Solace (BEAT’s online peer support group): Solace (beateatingdisorders.org.uk)
Point of Information
Social Media is a Tough Blame – A Conservative Response
While it is a worrying problem that my colleague identifies, I fear that the isn’t an effective response to the problem of social media posting.
The more extreme content of these fad diets and unachievable lifestyle posts can be controlled through social media sites better regulating themselves. However, the discourse around a person being beach/summer body ready is harder to define and mitigate.
Firstly, it is important that we are targeting the right social media sites. Twitch is stated as one of the sites that has seen an increase in its users. However, it is primarily a streaming site for gamers and doesn’t support short posts. While I’m sure there are dark corners of Twitch (as with every site), most of the new viewers would be there for the purpose of viewing their favourite gamer. TikTok, Twitter and Instagram would be more worthy to be concerned about with new viewers seeing harmful content about eating disorders.
If we took the literal interpretation of summer/beach body ready, then it simply means that a person is ready for their body to be seen out in the summer or at the beach. There is nothing harmful about that interpretation, everyone will have a different definition and that is completely okay.
But other interpretations can lead to people comparing themselves to others; making them think that there is only one body style that will be accepted to be beach body ready. This is what can be harmful.
It was the literal definition that the Advertising Standards Authority used in 2015 when the company Protein World ran an ad with the slogan ‘beach body ready’ next to a woman in a bikini. The Authority ruled that the ad was inoffensive, stating the accompanying image merely represented one person who was happy with their body style.
Now, using this ruling, it clear why blanket regulation is not the route to go. It would be punishing the individual for posting about their body, when it is their right on social media to do so. They are posting when they feel comfortable with their summer bodies; a perfectly fine thing to be.
In extreme cases, social media companies are (finally) starting to take action against some of these more extreme posts. For example, TikTok has partnered with the American charity, National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), to target some of the more extreme content that relates to eating disorders. This partnership has resulted in any hashtags on posts about pro-eating disorder content will be redirected to a NEDA helpline. A similar move hasn’t happened in the UK yet. However, TikTok is working with the charity in order for a similar rollout to occur. Instagram put similar measures back in place in 2016.
Mental health support schemes need to be robust enough in order to help with the potential rise in people suffering from eating disorders and other mental illnesses after 21 June. However, blaming social media as the only reason for the rise in eating disorders would be wrong.
Written by Senior Conservative Writer, Kieran Burt
Isolation is the Main Problem – A Liberal Response
Zoe has crucially highlighted an upsetting, and yet often overlooked, rise in eating disorders during the pandemic. Social media, and many of the harmful body expectations its users can often promote, undoubtedly played a part in this. As both Zoe and Kieran highlight, significant work needs to be done by social media sites to combat these damaging posts. TikTok’s collaboration with NEDA is only the start.
However, the increase in our usage of social media – TikTok in particular – is only a part of the problem. The pandemic has ushered in many other changes which have set back, and even started, the battle many are facing with eating disorders. Food rationing, a loss of a clear schedule, and the increased time spent in one space have all had adverse effects on those suffering.
The direst change, however, has been the loss of a visible community. Cut off from other people by months of social distancing; many have been forced into a world where one can feel alone. For many struggling with eating disorders, this separation is often felt and can be detrimental.
As Zoe has pointed out, social media can worsen this isolation. Yet, it can also provide opportunities for community, even in a pandemic-stricken globe. For example, Mx. Roll shares how she used social media to connect with others struggling with eating disorders, forming virtual forums in the process. In addition, social media can point to charities, such as BEAT, which have organized group support networks to help people cope.
As we emerge from the pandemic this Summer, there is a chance that social media, combined with body expectations, could worsen the situation. However, social media could also provide avenues for support in the meantime. In any case, it is crucial to show people that they are not alone; that community does exist.
Written by Chief Liberal Writer, Frank Allen