Home Cyberpsychology & Technology Social Media Fuels “Alarming Increase” in Eating Disorders Among Youth, Experts Warn

Social Media Fuels “Alarming Increase” in Eating Disorders Among Youth, Experts Warn

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With an estimated 1.25 million people in the UK suffering from an eating disorder, Eating Disorders Awareness Week (26th February–3rd March) aims to raise awareness of the condition. Lee Hawker-Lecesne, clinical director at The Cabin, Asia’s premier rehabilitation centre with over 50 years of clinical expertise, runs The Cabin’s Eating Disorder Programme. Here he looks at the increase in eating disorders, how to spot the signs, and how to get help.

Lee explained: “Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that can affect anyone, no matter what gender, age, background, or ethnicity. This is a human issue, and left untreated, it can result in serious long-term consequences. More awareness and education are needed to combat media-fueled stereotypes and encourage early intervention.”.

Social media platforms are fueling eating disorders

The increasing influence of social media on people’s lives is almost certainly a key factor, and a study by University College London in March 2023 found that social media use was a “plausible risk factor” for the development of eating disorders, particularly in young people, increasing the risk of social comparison and promoting the need to be thin or fit. Access to pro-eating disorder content or platforms focusing on appearance compounds the problem. Platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have accelerated problems in people’s mental health, especially eating disorders, with individuals feeling an increased dissatisfaction with their body image.

Lee said: “While providing a platform for expression and social support, research indicates a clear association between social media use and mental health problems. A staggering 92% of UK teenagers are active on social media, with the 13–17 age group being particularly heavy users.” The impact on mental health is multifaceted, encompassing impaired sleep, cyber victimisation, and social comparison.

The effects of the pandemic on eating disorders

We can attribute the alarming increase in eating disorders to the impact of the pandemic, which has had a well-documented detrimental impact on mental health. For many, the loss of routine, social isolation, and uncertainty increased the risk of disordered eating, especially among those with a pre-existing history of anxiety and depression.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders can take many different forms, but when abnormal habits around eating, exercise, and weight take control, an eating disorder can arise, such as disordered eating, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, among others. These obsessions can cause serious damage to an individual’s emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing.

Signs and symptoms of an eating disorder

  • Spending a lot of time worrying about weight and body shape
  • Maintaining strict food habits/routines
  • Deliberately making oneself sick or taking laxatives after eating
  • Over-exercising or becoming obsessive about exercise.
  • Avoiding socialising when food will be involved.
  • Changes in mood and behaviour
  • Problems sleeping
  • Physical symptoms such as problems with digestion, fluctuations in weight, feeling cold, tired, or dizzy.

If you are questioning your eating habits, ask yourself these

  1. Do you experience feelings of guilt or shame when you eat?
  2. Are you preoccupied by thoughts of being thinner?
  3. Do you tend to eat in isolation or in secret?
  4. Have others commented on your eating habits?
  5. Do you weigh yourself at least once a day?
  6. Do you skip meals in order to lose weight or to avoid gaining weight?
  7. Do you exercise more than once a day?
  8. Do your emotions affect your eating habits?
  9. Do you avoid close relationships or social activities?
  10. Do you vomit after meals?

If you said yes to more than one of the above, you might be struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder. If you are worried about your eating patterns or concerned that someone you care about has an eating disorder, please contact your GP in the first instance. The earlier you can get treatment, the better.

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