Does social media play a role in eating disorders?

ORLANDO — When Port St. John resident Kristin Svandrlik was 13, she would lie awake at night and worry about tomorrow.

She meticulously planned when she would exercise, socialize and do homework. But the last thing on her mind was food — mostly because she didn’t plan on eating any.

More than 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders.

Susan D. Tweeten, a licensed psychologist and coordinator of the Eating Disorders Management Team at UCF, said a 2013 study by UCF indicated that 3.7 percent of students experienced eating concerns in the previous 12 months, which included skipping meals, fear of being “fat” and having a poor body image.

Some experts say social media could be playing a role in eating disorders.

“I think one of the biggest injustices of social media is that it allows you to present and create a false reality, and people believe that that reality is true,” said Allison Walsh, the founder of the Orlando nonprofit Helping Other People Eat. “And with filters and editing and everything, it can just be such a drastic comparison to what the reality of life is.”

Stephanie Zerwas, the clinical director at University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders and an associate professor of psychiatry, said that although it may seem that the number of eating disorders is increasing, there is no data to support that idea.

She said it could just be that more people are coming forward and receiving help for their disorders, skewing the numbers.

Eating disorders can take many forms, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, which is the most common eating disorder in the United States, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.

Kristin, now 17, suffered from anorexia; she starved herself and lost dangerous amounts of weight.

Kristin said social media played a large role in her eating disorder, which began in the summer of 2013. She became more active on Instagram and interested in shows about modeling. She also had started isolating herself.

“I didn’t talk to any of my friends during that time,” she said. “The eating disorder was basically my friend at that time. It was a thing that I would feel most comfortable with.”

By September 2013, Kristin’s weight had fallen to double digits, and she had become angry and destructive, said her mother, Kim Svandrlik.

Zerwas, who gave a TedTalk earlier this year called Picture Perfect: #BodyGoals, said increased social media use does not mean someone will develop an eating disorder.

She said it’s about how people are using social media.

People using it to compare their bodies with their friends or past images of themselves are more likely to develop eating disorders, Zerwas said.

“We live in a culture where eating disorders thrive because of the glorification of thinness and the obsession with perfection,” said Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association.

And although social media can act as a trigger, it can also act as a community to help individuals and their families through recovery.

“It depends on where you are in your recovery from eating disorders, or how vulnerable you are to developing an eating disorder,” Mysko said. “We see a lot of people in our community using social media as a source of body positivity and supporting their recovery.”

Kim Svandrlik said she felt alone when she first discovered her daughter had an eating disorder. However, after joining Mothers Against Eating Disorders, an online community that aims to raise awareness and offer support, she was able to find a specialized team to help treat her daughter.

“I had nobody because nobody understood … I was always on that site and the moms, they gave me the information I needed on where to go,” she said.

Celine Passeri, an Orlando-based clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, said eating disorders may appear to center on food, but the main issue is a sense of control.

“It’s not about bodies, it’s not about food, it’s not about weight — it’s a coping skill,” Passeri said.

But Zerwas said it’s not always an issue of control. Some people actually have a different biological response to cutting calories.

“So if you go on a diet … most people respond to that by feeling really irritable and sort of shaky and they don’t really like the experience,” Zerwas said. “Typically, people with anorexia nervosa respond to that deprivation of food in a really different way; they talk about how they felt less anxious, more in control, that it sort of calms their anxieties and fears overall.”

Kristin, who was raised in a military family, had to move each time her father, Brian Svandrlik, was given a new post and assignment.

“Whenever I would feel sad or tired, I would turn toward (restricting) food and it would make me feel like I was doing something right in my life,” she said.

Now, three years and two treatment centers later, when Kristin ends her day, she doesn’t lie awake and worry about tomorrow. She will graduate from high school next year and plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Kristin wants to eventually become a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders.

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