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When your face doesn't fit: how social media is fuelling a body image crisis

One mother's fight to protect children and young people from digitally altered images...

Suzanne Samaka launched the #HonestyAboutEditing Campaign
Suzanne Samaka campaigns for #HonestyAboutEditing

Professional Social Work magazine, 13 August, 2021

By LOUISE PALFREYMAN

Four years ago, family life was turned upside-down for Suzanne Samaka.

It happened over the course of a brief summer, and by the end of it a close family member had been diagnosed with anorexia.

What followed was a complex journey to recovery, involving CAMHS, social workers, and a specialist young person’s inpatient unit. And Suzanne is convinced that spending too much time online, with the constant pressure to be perfect, played its part.

“It all happened so fast,” she remembers. “There was a GP visit a few weeks into the summer holidays, and by September the diagnosis was anorexia.

At first, Suzanne felt out of her depth: “I was a step parent to four children, and I’d never been exposed to something like this before. You tend to think that they will go to an inpatient unit where a magic wand will be waved, and the individual will be fixed.

“It doesn’t happen like that. It’s long and complicated, and in fact it is fair to say we will never know the root cause, and maybe neither will they.”

Online pressures

Suzanne describes the inpatient unit she visited as ‘full to bursting.’ She was horrified by the number of young people and children in there, and she firmly believes exposure to online filters and edited images plays its part in the development of serious body image issues and complex disorders.

“Social media doesn’t necessarily create these problems, but it can exacerbate them,” she observes.

“For our family, it wasn’t the sole reason why anorexia developed, but there are so many examples where viewing content on these platforms makes the problem worse.”

Now the mother of a two-year-old and currently pregnant with her second child, she has launched the #HonestyAboutEditing campaign. She wants sites and platforms to state when images have been digitally altered.

“So many children have anxiety and depression, and what is really scary is that a lot of them are desperately unhappy behind their social media images.

“By their own admission, all those likes and shares haven’t solved their loneliness, anxiety, or helped their mental health. They put themselves under so much pressure - peer pressure has always been around, but the difference now is that social media takes that to the Nth degree.

“You have to be perfect, at a time when you haven’t even become an adult. Our kids don’t allow themselves to have an off day. They haven’t got the skillset to see that off-days are normal.”

Campaigning for change

Suzanne works with Anorexia and Bulimia Care to lobby the social media giants and parliament about body image and online digital manipulation.

A petition she started is close to 1,500 signatures, and she says: “Without exception, everyone I’ve spoken to thought this was already the law or that it should be.

"Since starting the petition, I have been contacted by many teachers who have told me of conversations with students who feel under pressure from social media perfection or crippling loneliness. I have also been contacted by countless parents who are terrified of how body conscious their children are, with ages starting from as young as nine and throughout their teens.

“I have spoken with many adults who have suffered their own mental health challenges in their adolescent years, signing the petition because they just can’t fathom how they would have survived against the odds that the youth of today are growing up with.

“These mental health challenges do not discriminate against females or males and this petition is very much needed to protect all young people and proactively support their body image and self-esteem.”

A big eye-opener for Suzanne has been the plight of boys and young men who are dealing with the same social pressures as girls in terms of body image.

“A GP will see a young man with a perceived healthy physique standing before them and say, ‘There’s no problem here.’

“And that’s the thing. Body Dysmorphia is a disorder, but it’s a hidden problem. These boys are under huge pressure to be more muscular. There’s an assumption that eating disorders are a female white adolescent problem, and so the boys and young men get forgotten.”

Worsening problem

The pandemic has been a disaster for boys and girls, young men and women with eating disorders. The number of under-20s ending up in hospital over the past year topped 3,200 – a 50 per cent increase on 2019-20.

Bupa UK research revealed:

  • 46 per cent of teenagers surveyed altered their eating habits during lockdown
  • 84 per cent admitted restricting the food they ate for a sense of control
  • 41 per cent felt control when they ate more
  • There was a 132 per cent increase in the Google search ‘types of eating disorders’

Eating disorder charities reported a huge increase in calls to their helplines as people struggled with the first wave of panic buying when supermarkets, often a main source of controlling food for those with a disorder, ran out of essentials.

Young people with obsessive traits, often locked into exercise regimes common to eating disorders, experienced high levels of distress when gyms, leisure centres, and other outlets for their behaviours closed.

Suzanne says: “The pandemic has meant young people have spent more time at home and online. This means they are seeing more content than ever that is edited or filtered, and it is having a disastrous effect on their self-esteem.”

In addition, Suzanne has observed a more worrying trend directly impacting on the treatment of eating disorders.

“I heard of many people being discharged from inpatient units too early. They were perhaps at the point where they were being allowed home for weekends.

“When the pandemic hit and the Covid risk was being assessed, the last thing a lot of these units needed was a virus ripping through them. So, it’s understandable that they sent patients home. But a lot of them may not have been ready.

“And of course, going home is one thing, but going home into a pandemic presents particular challenges for people with eating disorders.”

Lack of transparency

Suzanne wants to make one thing clear.

“I’m not against social media – each to their own. But what I am against is the lack of transparency. This is where body image problems and all the problems these young people face with their self-esteem, really sets in.

“Most of us have blotchy skin and imperfections, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But our kids are aiming for flawless, all the time, and that has to be wrong.”

She is proud of the lobbying and campaigning that has seen her seek support from MPs and speak to countless other families affected by eating disorders.

But there’s still a long road ahead. Suzanne’s has been working with MP Dr Luke Evans, a former GP, who launched the Digitally Altered Body Image Bill, which went through Parliament last September – but it wasn’t passed and now languishes in the political long grass, as unprecedented numbers of young people seek help.

Suzanne never gives up and one of her aims is to challenge the social media companies.

“It hasn’t been easy so far, and we haven’t had a response, but we are creating a movement while waiting for the Bill to come around again.”

Role of social workers

And Suzanne has a message for social workers who are perhaps dealing with a young person with an eating disorder:

“The key thing is to see the person and not the condition, because an eating disorder is so completely different for each individual.

“Recovery is also completely different, so you need to take on board not only the person, but the feedback from the inpatient unit, how the parents feel…

“It is a frustrating process, and it may be completely new to you, as it once was to me. But nobody chooses to have an eating disorder. People can recover with the right support.”

Suzanne is currently seeking support for her petition to make social media companies change the rules on edited or filtered images.

You can sign the petition here...

Further resources

BEAT runs online support groups and has a helpline for young people on 0808 801 0711 or email fyp@beateatingdisorders.org.uk

Anorexia and Bulimia Care can be contacted Wed-Fri on 03000 11 12 13

Seed Charity runs a helpline 9.30am-2.30pm weekdays on 01482 718130 or email hello@seed.charity