Though Instagram is the home of many accounts focused on positive body image, it also hosts a substantial amount of content that can promote disordered eating. New research published in the journal Eating Behaviors examines how two specific types of Instagram content—fitspiration (“fitspo”) and thinspiration (“thinspo”)—affect women with a history of disordered eating.
The researchers examined whether engaging in specific types of disordered eating behaviors predicted how likely young women were to encounter fitspo or thinspo on Instagram. The results suggest that young women already struggling with disordered eating may be especially likely to see this type of content.
Understanding the link between social media use and eating-disordered behaviors is a more complicated undertaking than many might realize. There’s reasonably consistent evidence of a correlation between social media use (especially image-focused use) and body image/eating concerns among young women. But as every psychology student can (hopefully!) tell you: Correlation does not equal causation.
It’s possible that exposure to social media content focusing on the pursuit of thinness causes women to engage in more disordered eating. But it’s also possible that women who already struggle with body image and eating are especially drawn to this type of content and seek it out. This second possibility is what researchers tested in this new study. (Of course, both of these directions of causality could be accurate. Women who are drawn to thinspiration may already be struggling with eating behaviors, but the content can still exacerbate symptoms.)
Participants in this new study were 171 young women who used Instagram at least once per day and who were currently engaging in disordered eating. To meet that classification, the women had to indicate that they had engaged in at least four episodes of disordered eating over the past few months. Episodes could include binge eating, self-induced vomiting, diuretic/laxative use, extreme caloric restriction, or excessive exercise.
In addition to administering a set of online surveys at the beginning of the study, the researchers used a tool called ecological momentary assessment. Ecological momentary assessment involves repeatedly surveying participants’ experiences in real-time, typically via smartphone.
In this study, participants were first trained to recognize social media content that qualified as fitspo or thinspo. The researchers described thinspiration this way: “Content (images or text) that is intended to inspire and encourage an individual to be very thin or lose weight. Thinspiration often includes images of extremely thin bodies with visible bones or very low body fat, weight loss techniques, or quotes about the desire to be very thin/lose weight.” Fitspiration was described as, “Content (images or text) that is intended to inspire and encourage an individual to become more physically fit in pursuit of obtaining a thinner, more muscular, or more toned body. Messages that promote a healthy relationship with exercise or body positivity would not be considered fitspiration.”
After making sure that participants could accurately identify these two types of social media content, the researchers sent participants six prompts each day for a week. The prompts asked participants to report the amount of time they spent on Instagram and whether they viewed thinspo, fitspo, or both during that time period.
Although the women in the study used Instagram frequently (they reported using the app 79 percent of the times they were “pinged” by the researchers), they only encountered thinspo or fitspo 37 percent of the times they used the app. Seeing fitspo was slightly more common than seeing thinspo.
Overall, the more time these young women spent on Instagram, the more likely they were to view eating disorder-relevant content. That’s not surprising, given that more time on the app simply offers more opportunities for encountering thinspo and fitspo.
Women with higher levels of purging, dietary restraint, and excessive exercise all saw more fitspo on Instagram. Women who reported higher levels of dietary restraint at the beginning of the study were also significantly more likely to see thinspo when they spent time on Instagram.
In an interesting finding, the amount of fitspo and thinspo these young women saw decreased over the seven days of the study. It’s possible that participating in the study alerted women to the dangers of this type of social media content, leading them to seek it out less or engage with it less. Sometimes simply monitoring your behavior can lead to positive behavior changes.
Social media algorithms are built to pick up on users’ interests and feed users more content on that topic. So even limited engagement with fitspo or thinspo can result in a deluge of such content showing up. If a woman at high risk for eating disordered behavior follows accounts that post thinspo content, Instagram will recommend additional accounts with similar themes and show similar posts under “explore.” Engaging with thinspo or fitspo can also prompt targeted ads focused on weight loss.
Though Instagram has publicized steps they’ve taken to minimize exposure to harmful, eating disorder-promoting content, a savvy social media user will not have difficulty finding such content. Instagram users can also stumble across thinspo and fitspo by accident. This new research suggests the best approach to avoiding thinspo and fitspo on social media may be to cut down on social media use altogether.