11 Sep 2018
Eating disorders are a growing problem amongst young people as they enter the digital space with greater frequency and use social media more often. The distorted senses of body image that can arise from the digital world, and the peer and parental pressure felt to appear a certain way, have caused more young people to suffer from eating disorders (Lee, Lee, Pathy and Chan, 2005).
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders are illnesses that manifest as extreme, unhealthy eating patterns. They are not lifestyle choices, but mental conditions that affect a person's eating habits (Salafia, Jones, Haugen and Schaefer, 2015). They are not tied to a specific body shape or type: someone suffering from an eating disorder may be very thin, at a healthy weight, or overweight. Although eating disorders mainly affect young women, they can affect anyone from any gender, age, race, and income level.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (May, 2013) from The American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders can be broken down into several types, and a person can have more than one type at any point. Here are the more common types of eating disorders:
Why does someone get an eating disorder?
Like other mental illnesses, there are many reasons someone may get an eating disorder. Here are some common issues that have been noted:
How can a TV show or Instagram affect my child's mental health?
There is a lot of research describing the effect of both social and traditional mass media on someone's perception of themselves. The problem of a young person’s overexposure to the images they see of bodies online is when they internalize these ideals and compare their bodies to the ones on the screen. This is a doomed comparison from the beginning since the images, as we all know, are not real. However, these images are often very realistic, making it more likely for your child to internalise them as something they can and should be able to obtain. Not obtaining this ideal shape can then cause more hardship for this person than for the person who is able to recognise the media content as an unrealistic standard and one they don’t feel the need to live up to.
One unique feature of the online world is social media, which is not just visual, but highly interactive. On social media, having more likes and followers are easy indicators of a person’s popularity and their online achievement. This can easily shape your child’s sense of self-worth. Social media allows your child to get real-time feedback and validation. They know that specific messages, images, and presentations of themselves are ‘liked’ better by other people, and the anonymous nature of some social media also lets them know when images or messages are not liked by others. These positive and negative comments and posts put huge amounts of pressure on a child to present themselves in only one way – the ‘right’ and ‘likeable’ way – online.
By virtue of the fact that people can selectively choose what to post and which versions of themselves to present, social media is often about someone’s appearance. People follow celebrities and online influencers, they have apps such as VSCO Snapseed to edit and filter their photos before posting them, they even have apps like Huji or Kuji Cam to make their photos look like they were taken on film – a new and popular fad – and they spend a lot of time talking about how they look. It is not unusual for people to spend a lot of time thinking about how to pose, when the light strikes best, where the best backdrops are, and even when the best time to post a photo to get optimum likes is – all for one photo.
Ultimately, the stronger the connection between how someone looks and how much they are worth – the more effort they put into curating their online identity – the greater the potential for body image issues. Young people can easily become trapped in a world where they are anxiously waiting for likes and comments, then feeling disappointed and hurt if they do not receive them, even deleting the post so that more people are not witness to their ‘failure’. This anxiety, worry, and insecurity can manifest in an eating disorder.
How can I tell if my child has an eating disorder?
There are several signs of eating disorders, although they will change depending on the type of eating disorder that your child is suffering from. Generally, signs include:
How can I stop this from happening to my child?
However, it is important to remember that eating disorders are a type of mental illness. This means that no matter what you do or how many precautions you take, there is a chance that your child suffers from it anyway. This does not reflect any failure on either of your parts. Instead, consider it an opportunity for the family to come together to help one of your own recover and get better. Read about eating disorders more at Not Just Surface Damage – a compilation of stories by survivors of eating disorders – or the Health Promotion Board.
I think my child needs professional help. Where can I go?