Rise in body image concerns and anxiety, Yorkshire academic warns

An urgent review is needed to ensure social media companies are restricting harmful content being placed online in the wake of a dramatic rise in the number of young women suffering from an eating disorder, a leading Yorkshire academic has warned.

The rise in the number of eating disorders revealed in a wide-ranging survey has accentuated concerns that young people are facing increasing anxiety over how they are perceived amongst their peers.

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Dr Stuart Flint, from the University of Leeds, has now called for the review for social media companies to take steps to restrict and prevent potentially harmful information from being disseminated to the public.

The annual Health Survey for England which was published this month found one in six adults in England has a possible eating disorder, including 28 per cent of women aged 16 to 24.

He told The Yorkshire Post: “The results of the survey are concerning, but unfortunately unsurprising given the societal view of weight, where thin and athletic body sizes are celebrated, whilst overweight and obesity are stigmatised.

“The focus and in many instances, pressures relating to body size and shape has led to a rise in body image concerns and anxiety which inevitably has influenced our relationship with food and associated behaviour.”

The annual Health Survey for England which was published this month found one in six adults in England has a possible eating disorder, including 28 per cent of women aged 16 to 24.

The study found that 16 per cent of adults in 2019 screened positive for a possible disorder, including four per cent who said their feelings about food interfered with their ability to work, meet personal responsibilities or enjoy a social life.

Pictured Dr Stuart Flint, from the University of Leeds. Photo credit: The University of Leeds.

Among women, those under 35 were most likely to have a possible eating disorder – 28 per cent of those aged 16 to 24 and 27 per cent of those aged 25 to 34.

The findings are around double the comparable figures in a 2007 adult psychiatric morbidity survey which estimated that just six per cent of adults had a possible eating disorder.

Dr Flint, an associate professor at the School of Psychology, for the University of Leeds, added: “Unfortunately, social media provides a platform where people are accessing unevidenced, harmful content that can increase concerns about body shape and appearance, increase mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, and in some cases encourage unhealthy eating behaviours.”

Dr Flint added increased pressures brought on by the pandemic could have led to more people reporting they had disordered eating with the lockdown placing more pressure on those with eating disorders, as exercise is restricted, face to face hospital appointments are cancelled and people bulk buy in supermarkets.

He said: “Not everyone has been affected adversely, but for some, diets have changed significantly compared to before the pandemic, as have physical activity, sleep and wellbeing.”

One of the biggest eating disorder charities, Beat, saw a 73 per cent rise in contact across all of their helplines channels in May, compared to February this year.

There was also a 162 per cent increase in social media contact, the charity found.

Beat’s chief executive, Andrew Radford, told The Yorkshire Post: “These figures are shocking and highlight that eating disorders may be an even bigger issue than previously thought. They clearly show that stronger action is needed to ensure everyone with, or at risk of, an eating disorder gets the support and treatment they need.”

He called for urgent action to reverse the chronic underfunding – and in some cases the “total absence” – of binge eating disorder services.

He added workforce planning must also be stepped up so that eating disorder services can recruit the professionals they need to deal with this rising demand.

The Government announced new laws to make the UK a safer place to be online this month - setting out how the proposed legal duty of care on online companies will work in practice and gives them new responsibilities towards their users.

It includes the most popular social media sites, with the largest audiences and high-risk features, will need to go further by setting and enforcing clear terms and conditions which explicitly state how they will handle content which is legal but could cause significant physical or psychological harm to adults.

Christmas for people suffering with eating disorders

- Christmas can be one of the most difficult times of year for people suffering from eating disorders, a charity has warned.

Caroline Price, the director of services for Beat, said the emphasis on food and drink that surrounds this time of year can put additional pressures on those with conditions such as anorexia and bulimia.

She said: “The Christmas period can be extremely difficult for people with all kinds of eating disorder – even without the added stress of a pandemic.

“People with eating disorders often try to hide their illness and at Christmas when eating is a social occasion – often with people who they do not see frequently – they may feel ashamed and want to isolate themselves from others. At the same time, Christmas can be a source of distress for families who are caring for someone with an eating disorder.”

Ms Price said during this festive period it was important to “plan ahead” and openly discuss when and how food would be involved over the Christmas period.

She added: “It can help to steer attention away from food, so once meals are over, find activities that focus on something else, such as a family walk, playing board games, or watching a funny film together.

“It’s also worth having a quiet word with relatives, as well-intended comments such as ‘Don’t you look healthy?’ or ‘Haven’t you done well eating your dinner?’ could be misinterpreted and cause more harm than good.”

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