Social Media and Eating Disorders in Lebanon
BEIRUT: With the record number of Lebanese women going online, social media becomes a powerful tool in influencing those most at risk of the potentially life-threatening conditions of an eating disorder.
Eating disorders (ED) are now among the most severe mental disorders in adolescents and young adults. Recent studies have revealed a high prevalence of this condition in both Western and non-Western societies, including Lebanon. ED refers to disturbed eating patterns such as anorexia nervosa (AN); bulimia nervosa (BN) and binge eating disorder (BED).
A high risk of eating disorders exists in the Lebanese youth, especially among females. It was also revealed over the last decade that a substantial number of young men suffer from this condition.
In a recent study conducted in a Lebanese university, students exposed to images of thin models and “perfectly shaped” famous figures were dissatisfied with their bodies and exhibited changes in their eating behaviors. Body image dissatisfaction was found to be a predictor of ED.
Due to globalization, Lebanon has a significant Western influence evident in its society. Similar to Western cultures, media messages often emphasize a culture of “thinness” and “perfection”, which has been linked to body dissatisfaction especially among young females. Several studies have supported an association between body image dissatisfaction and ED.
Undoubtedly, the most powerful influence on women comes from the media, including social media, which plays an important causal role in body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. However, it is worth noting that the causes of ED are varied and complex, such as psychological and social factors and personality traits. Thus, it is unlikely that social media by itself causes this condition on all types of women.
Social media usage rose dramatically in Lebanon in the last few years: 91 % of the Lebanese population are internet users, whereas 66 % are active social media users.
When looking at social media use in Lebanon by gender, the percentage of women’s online profiles is considered high compared to other countries in the Middle East. Some 43 % of all Facebook profiles are female, whereas 48 % of all Instagram users are women. Moreover, the percentage of women online is higher than the percentage of men (88% versus 81 %).
With the increase of social media influence, many celebrities, bloggers and vloggers are using social media to promote their eating diet, exercise routine and toned bodies. The constant exposure to "fitspiration" images and posts, which aim to inspire people to live healthy and fit lifestyles, reinforces the prioritization of physical appearance. As a result, some women are engaging in social comparison around what they perceive as the “perfect” body and “perfect” lifestyle, which can potentially contribute to ED.
Unfortunately, control and prevention of ED are a not a part of the health strategies in Lebanon. The awareness about this condition is still low and the patients delay seeking professional help. Thus, there is a need for specialized ED centers in addition to preventive and remedial educational programs targeting youth and adolescents, who are more at risk.
The country could also benefit from media literacy programs aiming at adopting a more critical view of media messages by challenging the “thin ideal” presented in the mass media. The good news is, social media itself can be used as a platform for intervention and prevention to decrease the prevalence of ED and anxiety.
Finally, the question here is not how social media is affecting our thinking and behavior, but rather how it is contributing to making us who we are, and changing our identity as women.
----------------Nada Richa is a graduate of NDU University with a Master's Degree in Media Studies, where she presented a thesis entitled “The Impact of Online Activism against Domestic Violence in Lebanon on Women’s Empowerment and Social Change.” Richa is also a researcher in the Lebanese Center of Strategic Studies CLES.