COVID-19 pandemic and social media raise increased concerns about eating disorders


Rita Offutt, Editor

On Tuesday, Oct. 5 the United States Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security Hearing assembled for a hearing regarding recent allegations against Facebook. The allegations, known as the Facebook Files, were published by The Wall Street Journal in conjunction with whistleblower Frances Haugen. Haugen, who previously worked for Facebook as a data scientist, revealed her identity on the Oct. 2 episode of 60 Minutes. She has produced a body of evidence suggesting that Facebook is harmful for young people and is aware of the harm it is doing, and spoke in accordance with the allegations during the hearing.  

The Facebook Files issue six complaints and have additional articles that support the claims and offer additional information about Haugen. The six complaints are that Facebook has: (1) a secret elite that is exempt from Facebook’s rules; (2) knowledge that Instagram is unhealthy for teenage girls; (3) evidence that Facebook incites anger in its users; (4) weak responses to drug cartels and human traffickers; (5) sown doubt about the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccines; (6) gradually been recruiting younger audiences. One of the complaints receiving the most attention is Facebook’s knowledge that Instagram is unhealthy for teenage girls. The New York Times reported Senator Richard Blumenthal “recounted to the hearing the real-world impact Instagram has had on a daughter of one of his constituents, who struggled with eating disorders herself.” 

Kathleen Martinez is a Team Leader at The Renfrew Center, a national network of facilities that specialize in the treatment of eating disorders. She described how the social media feeds, such as Facebook and Instagram, are image-based platforms with algorithms that can fuel certain expectations around food, dieting, and body image. Martinez said one of the hallmarks of eating disorders is “a comparison mindset”, and that social media accounts that share unhealthy ideas about dieting or unrealistic body expectations can perpetuate feelings of self-consciousness and damage self-esteem. 

Martinez also shared that eating disorders “thrive in isolation” because of the shame and guilt associated with them. The Renfrew Center has seen a 166% increase in outreach from young adults between the ages of 13-19 since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and a 17% increase in prospective college-aged patients. Martinez believes the transition back to campus may also be sparking an increase in unhealthy eating and dieting, since “times of change and transition [can increase] eating disorder behaviors.” New students may struggle with returning to campus, navigating collegiate life, and coping with the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fears about how they will be perceived, a desire for familiarity, and a lacking sense of control can all contribute to unhealthy eating behavior. 

Martinez encourages students to be mindful of their own eating habits and look out for their friends, especially because “eating disorders [fall on] a spectrum, [and while] certain behaviors may not be diagnosable, they are still concerning…a diagnosis is not necessary for treatment.” In other words, students struggling with body image or eating habits don’t need to fall into a specific category. Martinez said, “disordered eating is anything that can be considered problematic or concerning eating, such as food rituals, binging behaviors or an unhealthy relationship with exercise.”

The Renfrew Center offers help to those who may be concerned about their friends or family. Martinez recommends building trust with individuals who may be demonstrating concerning behaviors, and to express concern about general wellbeing as opposed to specific comments about weight and eating. Being empathetic and non-judgemental opens the door for future conversations, especially if worrisome behavior continues. Signs that someone is struggling with an eating disorder or similar issue can include eating alone, using the bathroom frequently after meals, intense exercise, fluctuations in weight, obsessive concerns about body image, swollen salivary glands, restrictive eating, thinning hair, or a complete disinterest in eating. It’s important to monitor changes in eating and exercise habits, as eating disorders don’t always present in a uniform fashion. 

If you are concerned about yourself or someone else, The Renfrew Center has four locations in the Philadelphia area – Radnor, Roxborough, Center City and Mt. Laurel, NJ – and offers assessments to determine if care is needed and if so, what the most appropriate level of care is. They offer resources on their website, and can be contacted over the phone at 1-800-RENFREW. The Renfrew Center offers payment options for those who aren’t willing or able to go through insurance, and their website promotes a “full financial support team that interfaces with insurance companies…to negotiate the cost of care covered.” Students struggling with food insecurity are invited to visit The Basket, a free on-campus food pantry open from 12:00 PM-1:30 PM on Wednesdays and Thursday from 11:00 AM-3:00 PM. La Salle’s Student Counseling Center, which is open from 8:30 AM-4:30 PM, also offers support for students struggling with food and body image issues. To schedule an appointment at the Counseling Center, please email

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