Though she has since recovered from the eating disorder she had as a teenager, when Emily Badeen scrolls through apps like Tik Tok, she is reminded of her early exploration of the internet world of eating disorder glamorization.
Badeen, a senior who was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at 15, said certain Tik Tok content brings up memories of her previous illness years later. As a teenager, Badeen was negatively influenced by social media, and used social media to view aspirational images of extreme, unhealthy weight loss, she said.
“The body types I loved on Tumblr were stick thin,” Badeen said, “like a skeleton.”
Anorexia nervosa, a disorder characterized by distorted body image, intense fear of being overweight, self-starvation and/or excessive exercise, has a mortality rate of 10%, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It is the most fatal mental illness.
Between 0.9% and 2.0% of females and 0.1% to 0.3% of males will develop anorexia in their lifetimes, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.
Badeen, who was involved in cheerleading at the time, said comparing herself not only to her peers, but also to photos on social media, contributed to her health issues. She said she felt pressured to look thin and perfect.
Social media use has been linked to eating concerns, said Brian Primack, dean of the College of Education and Health Professions at the UA. He oversaw a 2016 study that found an increase in social media use is accompanied by an increase in disordered eating behavior.
“Sort of almost like a dose response,” Primack said, “you give a little bit of the drug, the person gets worse, but you give a lot of the drug, they get a lot worse.”
At the height of her eating disorder, Badeen consumed fewer than 500 calories per day while forcing herself to run four miles and complete multiple abdominal workouts, she said.
“My family is built bigger in general, and so I always felt bigger.” Badeen said, “Even though, looking back, I had an eight-pack.”
Along with regular social media use, Badeen said she was involved with various pro-ana websites, which she said encouraged her to further restrict her diet.
Pro-ana, short for pro-anorexia, is a term used to describe sites, blogs and forums created with the purpose of encouraging and praising eating disorders as a form of weight loss, according to American Addiction Centers. These sites portray images, quotes and tips related to sustaining an eating disorder.
“(Pro-ana sites) give tips on how to lose weight, (and) if you get caught, how to get out of it,” Badeen said.
Primack’s study did not involve pro-ana content specifically, but social media as a whole. However, he worries about the dangers of pro-ana content’s popularity online, he said.
“The bottom line is, the medical community thinks of (pro-ana content) as a disease,” Primack said, “whereas the pro-ana community tries to present it as a lifestyle choice.”
Tumblr made efforts to shut down pro-ana content in 2012, banning blogs glamorizing any form of self-harm. Any search related to “pro-ana” would produce a warning against disordered eating.
Badeen, now recovered from anorexia, said she has seen pro-ana content on the popular video-sharing app, Tik Tok, which has amassed nearly 800 million global users since its debut in 2016.
Badeen said she has seen videos depicting people as young as 14 bragging about starving themselves, teenagers glamorizing drinking iced coffee while consuming no real food, and high schoolers cheerfully hiding eating disorders from parents, while scrolling through the app.
“There's even an ‘Eating Disorder Check’ that I saw on (Tik Tok),” Badeen said. “Some of them were showing how skinny they are. I was shocked that they were posting that.”
Badeen said she has seen some positive content under the “Eating Disorder Check” tag, such as people posting about their recovery and treatment experiences, but, for her, the pro-ana content overwhelms these positive stories.
Content supporting any dangerous method of losing weight is prohibited by Tik Tok’s community guidelines, but this type of content is still available on the platform for users to see.
Badeen said she has noticed that, in order to circumvent Tik Tok’s automated content filters, makers of pro-eating-disorder content will purposely misspell words or depict pro-ana behavior in a vague manner using only objects.
“People brag about not eating food,” Badeen said.
Tik Tok’s algorithm recommends videos to its users by determining what a user interacts with the most. Therefore, if users interact with pro-ana content on the app by “liking,” or commenting on it, they will be shown other similar videos.
Dr. Dianna Esmaeilpour, the Medical Director of the Child Diagnostic Unit at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said limiting exposure to social networking is beneficial to those prone to disordered eating.
“Just be really aware and conscientious about how you're spending your time on it,” Esmaeilpour said.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia, are incredibly difficult to treat and recover from, Primack said.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, when someone has an eating disorder they just need to be encouraged to eat a little bit,” Primack said, “and that just can't be farther from the truth. One of the hardest things about eating disorders is a lot of times the patient doesn't want to be better.”
Badeen, who has been recovered from anorexia for nearly eight years, said seeing eating disorders glamorized on Tik Tok often makes her feel like relapsing. She worries this content might be even more harmful to impressionable high schoolers and middle schoolers.
“(Pro-ana content on Tik Tok) makes me slightly want to revert back to that type of lifestyle,” Badeen said. “I’m assuming it affects other people in a similar way.”
Badeen said she thinks until young people see in the media what a healthy and ideal body really looks like, eating disorders pro-ana content will continue to flourish online.
“If (the media) can't change the idealized version of the body,” Badeen said, “I don't see this changing for the future.”
Those struggling with eating disorders can visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or call the association’s hotline at (800) 931-2237.