11 Feb 2020

Are online communities a supportive environment for someone experiencing or recovering from an eating disorder?


In celebration of Safer Internet Day, Danni Rowlands, our National Manager of Prevention Services, explores the online world, in particular social media platforms, and discusses how they can be simultaneously beneficial and harmful to someone experiencing or recovering from an eating disorder. 

Navigating the internet and social media platforms in general can be very overwhelming but for someone experiencing or recovering from an eating disorder there can be a unique set of challenges involved. Content has the ability to stall someone’s eating disorder recovery, reinforce negative feelings, attitudes and behaviours. It can also over simplify eating disorder recovery and misrepresentation can glamourise or inaccurately educate the community about the severe and complex mental illness we know eating disorders to be. On the other hand, online interaction can or may be incredibly positive and helpful, allowing individuals to connect and feel supported by a network of others who understand what they are experiencing and potentially motivate recovery.

So, what are the upsides to getting online?

Eating disorders can be extremely isolating and lonely, but by being online those with the illness may find a much needed sense of community. By connecting with people who ‘get it’, negative feelings may decrease knowing that they are not alone in their journey. During recovery, connectedness is particularly powerful. Being inspired by people who are moving through their own eating disorder experience and are sharing positive strategies that have worked may be incredibly helpful to someone recovering from an eating disorder. This type of content can provide hope to people experiencing an eating disorder, especially if the focus is on what life is like beyond the eating disorder –less about how they look or what they eat, focusing on how they feel and what they are doing with their life without their eating disorder holding them back.

But of course there are some downsides…

Online recovery groups also have the ability to drive unhelpful recovery comparisons and unhealthy competition. Often images, numbers, food plans, weight and body talk is included which for some people can be potentially triggering. While it is important that people feel proud of their body, it is important to be mindful that everyone’s recovery process is different and that a person’s body shape and weight may or may not change. Recovery pages are primarily visual which can make eating disorders seem like they are only about food and body shape or weight – this can be unhelpful as we know that they are so much more than that.. These pages and platforms are often unmonitored or safeguarded and therefore what is posted is at the discretion of the individual. Despite the best and positive intentions of the person posting content, it may be harmful to people who are vulnerable.

As an organisation, Butterfly is increasingly working alongside social media platforms such as Instagram to help reduce user’s exposure to harmful content pertaining to eating disorders. However, due to its user-generated nature, protecting people from harmful content can be extremely challenging. Social media platforms clearly have a responsibility in making sure users have a safe experience, where they are protected from unhelpful and potentially harmful content. From an eating disorder perspective, we have recently seen Instagram take the lead with their policy recognition of unsafe hashtags that promote dangerous eating disorders and dietary practices. We hope that other social media platforms that are less regulated, start to take steps in the same direction.

We encourage people to always:

– Consider how certain pages or content makes you feel. If it is triggering eating disorder thinking, attitudes and/or behaviours, then turning away from it will be best for your recovery and general wellbeing.

– When posting content, be sensitive and reconsider your post, knowing that someone who is vulnerable may be viewing it.

– Consider the purpose of posting; is it to compare or criticise? Or is it to celebrate and encourage?

– For more information on what kind of content is helpful and unhelpful check out the Mindframe guidelines for eating disorders, or for more tips to staying body confident on social media take a look at our guides for parents and teens, developed in partnership with Instagram.

– Talk to your health professional or other people you trust before venturing into this space, or if you are involved in online non-moderated recovery pages.

– Remember the Butterfly Foundation offers safe and well supported online recovery groups that you can join should you wish to connect with other people who are recovering from an eating disorder.


Get Support –  

You can talk to us. Contact the Butterfly Foundation’s National Helpline – 
Phone: 1800 33 4673 (ED HOPE).
Email: support@butterfly.org.au
Chat online 
If you need urgent assistance or support, please ring Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

Related tags: Advice Body Image Eating Disorder