social media on tablet

Parenting A Child With An Eating Disorder: Social Media…A Pandora’s Box

The use of social media is a hot topic in eating disorder parent circles. In recovery, online recovery communities can be a source of great support and a way to connect with others who understand the journey. One, however, has to get to recovery first before it can really be used in a positive way.

Before a patient is in solid recovery, social media can indeed be full of peril. Comparing oneself to others is often part of the personality profile of those who suffering from an eating disorder, and the internet provides 24/7 opportunities to do that. The number of “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia), “pro-mia” (pro-bulimia) and “thinspo” (thinspiration) communities on Tumblr will make you cry. Social media can also expose your child to ignorant and harmful comments about eating disorders. The other day on Twitter, this tweet leapt at me: “Eating disorders aren’t really a thing. It’s like just eat, lol”.

Furthermore, if your child is having peer issues and participating in the the drama that inevitably unfolds on social media, that can be too much for them to handle on top of fighting the eating disorder.

Regardless of whether or not you decide to limit your child’s access to social media, it’s important to keep it on your radar. If the terms above are not familiar to you, do some research. Your kids are likely using social media so you familiarize yourself with all of the popular platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat,, Tumblr, Instagram, etc. You may find yourself doing some detective work online, which can yield important information about your child’s mental health.

Andree shares how access to technology was managed in her home, “When my daughter was at her sickest, the phone didn’t matter and that signaled our scariest time ahead. So when she started to be more nourished and had more skills, the desire for the phone came back and we used that to our advantage. It was a part of our contract – the phone was the first thing to go when she didn’t follow through on her end. I am also an avid believer in keeping an eye on social media. It usually tells me where her head is … if I see it going the wrong way, I know to jump in with conversation, distraction or motivation.”

Erika and Michael found access to social media to be a double-edged sword. Because they understood its power, they were able to leverage it to help their daughter. “We used this to our advantage to use as a reward for reaching her goals in treatment. We had an extremely strict schedule and monitoring during this phase. For a time, it was just another way for the eating disorder and its detrimental ways to fester and interfere with our daughter’s treatment. Of course when she was noncompliant in her treatment, those privileges were taken away until she resumed progress.

She had an iPhone and we exchanged it for just a regular phone so she had no access to the Internet, yet could text and have contact with her friends and family. As time went by, she was allowed to earn free time on the computer by building trust. We did have a few setbacks, like looking up inappropriate information and trying to delete her history, and she had to earn back that trust. We didn’t go to extremes when setbacks happened since we were aiming for progress, not perfection. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’ was our motto. “

If you feel, as many parents do, that access to social media is hindering treatment, you can easily purchase blocking software for both computers and phones. Since nighttime can be a scary and difficult time, it may be best for your child to surrender technology at bedtime.

Like many of the things that you have to do as a parent of a child with an eating disorder, handling access to technology and social media can feel very counterintuitive especially with an older teen. Discussing your fears and your new rules in family therapy and putting parameters in a contract can alleviate your fears and let you make peace with doing what you have determined is best to save your child’s life.

Jennifer Denise Ouellette is a member of the Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) at the UCSD Eating Disorders Center. The PAC is a group of parents with children who have completed the UCSD adolescent eating disorders program and whose role is to support new parents as they enter the program. You can follow her on Twitter @jugglingjenn