Food is all over Instagram, Pinterest, and the rest. Here's how our online appetite has changed our relationship with what we actually put on our plates
Social media occupies two out of every five minutes we spend online, and boy do we spend a lot of time online. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube… these platforms have become a standard part of our lives – to the point where we can’t imagine life without them.
As someone who’s career started on Instagram, I’ve always had a certain curiosity about how we humans navigate and process these online spaces. In particular, I’ve become curious about how social media has changed the way we eat. The answer, it turns out, is a lot.
Social media allows us to compare our food
What and how much we choose to eat is influenced by those around us, both physically and virtually. When we eat in large groups, we tend to eat more, which is not in itself a bad thing as the benefits of human connection go beyond what any single food can offer.
Seeing picture after picture of delicious food on our phones can provide us with great inspiration – after all, food is one of the most popular categories on Pinterest – but this can easily descend into comparison. Some comparison is normal and human, but the amount of information we’re receiving over the internet is often more than our brains are equipped to handle.
There is always someone online whose food is prettier, more popular, more enticing. There is always someone whose stomach is flatter, whose legs are stronger, whose smile is wider. Thin and toned fitness bloggers post ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos, enabling us to compare every morsel and make modifications, so we can eat like them to look like them.
This is despite the fact that people often edit what they eat and publish online to make themselves look better. This comparison often ends with us feeling inadequate and disheartened.
Social media enables food extremism
Ever wondered why extreme content gets more clicks and likes online? It turns out there are several reasons.
Firstly, social media algorithms are designed to show you more of what you interact with. If you search for ‘how to start running’ and watch a few videos on YouTube, it’ll end up pushing you towards more extreme content with titles like ‘I ran six ultramarathons in six days!’ This extreme content grabs our attention, which keeps us online and watching for longer, thereby generating more advertising revenue for the platform.
Secondly, we have a tendency to follow people who agree with us, while ignoring those who don’t, which can easily lead to an echo-chamber effect.
Thirdly, we don’t want to be kicked out of a group, so if the group leaders become more extreme, we feel we need to go along with them or risk being ostracised. Rejecting a food group means rejecting the people in that group who we’ve connected with, which makes it much more difficult.
When it comes to taking down harmful and extreme online content, social media platforms don’t have a great track record. When pro-anorexia (pro-ana) content began appearing on YouTube many years ago, strict measures were taken to protect viewers. But somewhere down the line, advertising revenue has become more important than viewers’ health.
Food shaming is a way for us to target others, and take attention away from our own deficiencies and insecurities
Social media encourages food shaming
In 2019, there was a big scandal on YouTube: several vegan YouTubers had been ‘caught out’ eating animal products, and the subsequent backlash from their followers was swift and severe. The criticism and food shaming that has been thrown at these individuals has come almost entirely from other vegans.
Social media allows us to food shame others much more easily, as we can say anything we like in the heat of the moment, and there are simply too many comments to regulate.
We see what someone eats as a key identifier of who they are – just think of how many online quizzes you’ve done that tell you where you should live, or who you should date, based simply on your favourite cheese.
We see food as identity, and when people post parts of their lives online, we feel a sense of ownership over their identity. So much so that when it changes, we get angry and lash out.
Food shaming is a way for us to target others, and take attention away from our own deficiencies and insecurities. Research shows that we tend to shame others for the very things we’re unsure of about ourselves. This means that our food shaming likely stems from an uncertainty and sense of shame about our own eating, whether that’s because we ‘cheated’ or because we’re afraid of others perceiving us as ‘lazy’ or ‘unmotivated’. Or maybe it’s because we’re afraid of being unwell.
Regardless, we desperately want to believe that good things happen to good people, and bad things only happen to bad people, because it means the world has simple rules. So, when someone gets hurt, we ask “What was she wearing?” or when someone has a heart attack we think ,“It must have been something they ate.” Sadly, the world is not that simple, and that makes us deeply uncomfortable, as it means we can’t have as much control as we would like.
Changing the law
Yes, it’s clear social media can easily have a negative impact on our mental health, with research linking many platforms to higher risk of depression, anxiety, body image issues, and disordered eating.
However, social media can be used to change the world. For example, Gina Martin made upskirting illegal with a powerful hashtag and a willingness to fight. Jamie Oliver helped introduce the sugar tax, again through a powerful hashtag and a strong online presence. Petitions are debated in parliament, and shares and retweets amplify messages we want our politicians to be aware of. Too much social media may not be great for us, but when used correctly it really can make a difference.
‘The Insta-Food Diet: How Social Media Has Shaped the Way We Eat’ by Pixie Turner (Head of Zeus, available now).