Eating Disorders: How Social Media Helps Spread Anorexia And Bulimia In Young People


Alarming figures released on Thursday show hospital admissions for eating disorders rose by 16% from last year to 2,288.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the statistics, released by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), were the ages of those being admitted.

The biggest increase was amongst girls aged 10-15, up 69% on last year. One in 10 of all admissions were girls aged 15. Forty-seven admissions were children aged five to nine.

Hospital admissions for eating disorders have risen by 16%

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness, at around 20%.

Whilst the portrayal of "ideal" body types in western media has long been recognised as a factor in propagating eating disorders, current research has been examining the role of social media in the triggering and spreading of the diseases.

Research has shown that eating disorders can be transmitted "like a virus" through social networks, whilst pro-anorexic websites provide tips, advice and an online community for unhealthy weight management.

Pinterest recently took the step of stopping search words such as "thinspiration" that could direct users to results related to eating disorders. Instead users are shown this warning: "Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening."

Facebook users have been shown to have increased the levels of self-consciousness about body image and weight, the implications of which could be profound as the social network has just announced that it now has 1 billion users.

That’s a lot of self-conscious people.

The reality of eating disorders, however, is much more complex. Susan Ringwood, Chief Executive of eating disorder charity, Beat, told The Huffington Post UK that every individual case is different with a variety of potential causes.

The use of overly skinny models in the mass media has long been condemned

She said: “Genetics, brain chemistry, brain structure and the role of hormones are all in the mix.

“So is the social and cultural environment, and while the social influence can be significant, its biology that loads the gun, culture pulls the trigger.”

The challenge lies in teasing out the different causes to find out what roles each factor has and what can be done to prevent or limit the damage caused.

Social media’s role appears to be one of reinforcement.

A hugely controversial aspect of social media has been the rise in pro-anorexic (pro-ana) websites, forums where those suffering from eating disorders can share tips on weight management.

Rachel Matthews, nurse consultant and clinical manager of Newbridge House, a specialist centre for young people with anorexia told the Huffington Post UK: “It would be an over-statement to say social media has caused the increase in admissions for eating disorders.

“But for some young people, pro-ana websites and the social media associated with them do play a part in exacerbating and reinforcing the illness.”

Pooky Knightsmith author of the eating disorders advice blog shared an extract of an interview with a 14-year-old anorexia sufferer that illuminates the role the pro-ana sites can play:

“I was a few pounds overweight and needed support. I found a great site where everyone gave each other weight-loss tips.

“I shared a photo of myself and got 47 comments mostly saying how fat I was.

“It really motivated me. I lost 3 stone with the help of that site.”

Statements like these from such young people are clearly worrying and the statistics from HSCIC starkly illustrate the need to address the underlying causes of eating disorders.

Ringwood said: “While societal pressure can't be seen as the direct cause of a rise in eating disorders (any more than any other single factor can), it is the risk factor that we can do the most to reduce, alleviate and challenge.

“Its a long term goal, but we need to nourish a generation of young people equipped to be resilient to these pressures and critical of the society that promoted them.”

Spotting the signs early is crucial for recovery

Education and early intervention are key. Spotting the symptoms of an eating disorder early and providing community based, specialist treatment that helps not just the sufferer but their family as well, has been proven to dramatically increase the chances of recovery.

By providing a healthy alternative to the support that many young people find through social media, the cycle of reinforcement can be broken.

Ex-anorexic and author of the soon to be released The Little Ugly Girl, Elizabeth Kesses-Delport, told Huffington Post UK: “Anorexia is about control when your inner confidence and stability are crumbling.

“Kids need to feel good about themselves again. It's as simple as that. Parents and teachers need to wake up and realise that the most basic human need, for safety and security is rapidly being eroded.”

For advice on eating disorders call Beat. For the Adult Helpline dial - 18001 0845 634 1414 and for the Youthline dial - 18001 0845 634 7650.

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