Ask an expert: Why is Covid-19 raising eating disorder rates amongst young people?

January 18, 2022

Tiago Duarte, psychiatrist and eating disorder specialist

Covid-19 has exposed millions of teenagers and young adults to isolation at a crucial time in their lives. There were no school breaks, no social meetings, no sport’s lessons, and no parties. Youngsters were secluded from social contact and remained indoors for longer than expected. Month after month, the only tips that happened were from the kitchen to the bedroom, and from the bedroom to the living room. Therefore, all eyes were directed towards social media and online social networks, the great paradise and hell for eating disorders.

Time spent on social media can affect mental health

Social media consumption has gone up exponentially. And the higher level of social network use has been associated with worse mental health. Social networks have, of course, positive points. Namely, they allow youngsters to connect and chat with each other, as well as keep up with others and play games together. Unfortunately, the downside is that it also promotes an idealised image, with only the best photos and videos of oneself being shared. This generates an internalised idea that everyone else is greater, prettier, more proactive and intelligent, and in a better place than us.

In a crucial time in brain development, as it is between the ages of 12 and 22 years old, there is an internalisation of a negative view of oneself, as compared to what others publish in social networks. It has been clear in the last two years that this comparison harms mental health, and can lead to eating disorders.

The root of the problem: Negative views towards ourselves

It is common to start negatively looking at ourselves, with magic thinking: “If only I was better looking” or “If only I was fitter or slimmer, or if I could lose some weight, then everyone would change their opinion about me”.

It is with this type of thinking that the path towards eating disorders begins. Then, a major social event often takes place, such as a negative comment from a friend, or a bad mark at an important examination. When one notices, the person is already restricting or binging, sometimes accompanied by vomiting or other self-induced weight loss strategies.

We can use online platforms in our favour

Since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, with the increase in isolation and social media use, the prevalence of eating disorders has been going up. Triggers like omnipresent online social networks are taking more and more useful time from youngsters. Therefore, it is important to act on these same online platforms where teenagers and young adults’ attention lies most of the time.

Online platforms like Holly Health which provide a set of actions towards a healthier life, and a better relationship with food and our bodies, are taking the lead as online strategies to help treat and prevent eating disorders.

Written by Tiago Duarte, Psychiatrist, MD.
Eating Disorders Unit - Centro Hospitalar Universitário Lisboa Norte, Lisbon, Portugal

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