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More Teens are Struggling with Eating Disorders…Thanks to the Pandemic and Social Media

Tensed while checking phone

Now that we’ve passed the second anniversary of the pandemic, most of us have COVID fatigue—meaning, we are exhausted from hearing about COVID-19. Be that as it may, fascinating new research is continually emerging about the impact it's had on all of us. If you're a parent to a teen, regardless of being COVID fatigued, you might want to read on. During the height of the COVID pandemic and consequential lockdowns, teens began spending even more time online—and rightfully so—in many ways, we all did. However, unlike adults, teenagers are more prone to adverse effects and consequences of social media. One of these consequences? An increased risk of developing an eating disorder. And during COVID, eating disorders in teens spiked.

I predominately work with adolescents and young adults, and even I was surprised at the sudden rate at which I was discussing coping strategies to manage symptoms of restrictive eating, binge eating, body dysmorphia, and everything in between. It is important to note that body dysmorphia (a distressing or impairing preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in appearance) is not classified as an eating disorder but accompanies those that suffer from anorexia nervosa 25%-39% of the time (Grant & Phillips, 2004).

This research is particularly concerning, especially after everything we heard about Facebook and Instagram last year. Frances Haugen, a data engineer, scientist, product manager, and whistleblower, disclosed tens of thousands of Facebook's internal documents to the SEC and Wall Street Journal in 2021.

For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company's researchers found that Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.

"We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls," said one slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues.

"Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression," said another slide. "This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups."

Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram, one presentation showed (Wells, Horwitz & Seetharaman, 2021).

The above statistics are terrifying…and just the beginning, and thankfully, people are paying attention. Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, testified before Congress in December 2021, to respond to mounting questions about the app's effects on young users. To read the Wall Street Journal’s complete investigative article, please click here.

However, social media use isn't the only contributing factor to the spike of ED's during the pandemic. The International Journal of Eating Disorders published a study that showed during the pandemic, three pathways exacerbated ED risk. "One, the disruptions to daily routines and constraints to outdoor activities may increase weight and shape concerns and negatively impact eating, exercise, and sleeping patterns, which may in turn increase ED risk and symptoms. Relatedly, the pandemic and accompanying social restrictions may deprive individuals of social support and adaptive coping strategies, thereby potentially elevating ED risk and symptoms by removing protective factors. Two, increased exposure to ED‐specific or anxiety‐provoking media, as well as increased reliance on video conferencing, may increase ED risk and symptoms. Three, fears of contagion may increase ED symptoms specifically related to health concerns or by the pursuit of restrictive diets focused on increasing immunity. In addition, elevated rates of stress and negative affect due to the pandemic and social isolation may also contribute to increased risk." (Rodgers at el., 2020).

So, as parents what should you do? Here are three simple tips to help!

1. Work on getting your teen's social media use time down. One of the first goals I set when working with teens (regardless of why they are seeing me) is to get their social media time down. This is never a popular goal initially, but every teen who has successfully done this with me reports that they are happier when they're not on one of the apps.

  • Make a rule that everyone must put their phone in a basket in a shared space during certain times. Just know this means that you'll have to do it too!

  • To avoid a fight, try redirecting your teen's time and attention. Get them involved in something, anything. What's that saying? Idol time is the devil's time.

2. Talk to your teens about self-esteem, body image, and the unrealistic standards the beauty industry, traditional media, and social media set. Parents truly underestimate just how much their teens look up to them. It may feel uncomfortable and awkward to have these kinds of conversations with your adolescents, but believe it or not, they yearn for them. Just ignore all of the eye rolls!

  • One of the best social media accounts on Instagram I share with my teenaged clients is @beauty.false. The account does an amazing job of demonstrating the "smoke and mirror" photoshopping that takes place in media!

3. Show your teens what a healthy relationship to food (and self) looks like.

  • Get your teens involved in cooking healthy family meals, sign up for online cooking classes together or try going for walks as a family after dinner.

If you notice that your teen is struggling with an eating disorder or aren’t sure, it’s important to get them help and support.

For information on general signs and symptoms of eating disorders please visit by clicking here.

To learn more about coping strategies your teens can use to help them manage ED symptoms, anxiety, and depression please call Kairos Chronic Pain Coaching at 908.370.5713 or visit , Scotch Plains, New Jersey.


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