Parent Group Warns of Social Media/Eating Disorders Link

Marcia Frellick

January 19, 2022

A parents' advocacy group with more than 2.5 million members nationwide sent an advisory to its members on Jan. 11, warning that social media's January onslaught of messages for dieting and weight loss may be particularly harmful to kids struggling with weight and body image.

The guidance from ParentsTogether noted that such messages can trigger eating disorders and body dysmorphia. But some are particularly dangerous.

A Wall Street Journal investigation recently found that TikTok is distributing videos of rapid-weight-loss competitions and ways to purge food.

According to the ParentsTogether advisory, the Wall Street Journal also found TikTok has sent thousands of videos to teen accounts with messages such as "how to eat only 300 calories a day" or "how to hide not eating from parents." The group says similar messages appear on other social media platforms children use daily.

The seasonal January barrage of ads comes on top of a pandemic trend of worsening eating disorder patterns in young people worldwide.

Amanda Kloer, an organizer of the campaign behind the advisory and mother of two teenagers, said in an interview: "We know that January is a particularly sensitive month for this because of the amount of ad spending the wellness industry does.

"We wanted parents to be aware that while these risks exist year round, if they have a kid who is at risk, who is struggling a bit, they should pay particular attention to what they're seeing on social media in January."

Kloer sets up accounts on different platforms to test the messages a teen might receive and says the algorithms ramp up the frequency and the severity of the content as interest by the user grows.

"It sends kids down an extremely dangerous rabbit hole," she said.

Debra Katzman, MD, with the division of adolescent medicine, department of pediatrics, University of Toronto, wrote in the Journal of Adolescent Health: "The COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on individuals with eating disorders. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, eating disorder experts from across the globe have observed a substantial increase in the number and severity of new and preexisting young people suffering with eating disorders compared to prior years."

Contributors beyond social media include lockdowns that bring steady access to food, distancing from peers, anxiety over school closures, and lack of a steady routine.

Eleanor Benner, PsyD, with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said in an interview that awareness is growing regarding the increase in eating disorders correlated with social media use.

Researchers and experts have acknowledged that social media use has increased and changed during the pandemic. Awareness is heightened as parents have been home with kids and noticing what kids are seeing online.

Benner, a psychologist for the eating disorder assessment and treatment program at CHOP, said platforms have made attempts to limit eating disorder content, but "the reality is that content producers can find ways around this, and unfortunately, we don't know for whom exactly that content poses greatest risk of contributing to the onset of an eating disorder."

The most important change for physicians and families to watch for is weight loss, Benner said.

"Weight loss or lack of weight in children and teenagers is not okay," she said. "Kids and adolescents should be continually growing and gaining weight through their early 20s."

Signs of trouble may include diet changes, rejections of favorite foods, and abnormal changes in physical activity, mood, and personality.

Benner said parents should feel empowered to share these changes with their pediatrician and request that the doctor not discuss weight in front of their children.

Parents should initiate conversations around what kids are seeing to help encourage critical questioning of social media content, Benner said.

"Parents can also promote body neutrality, the idea that bodies are neither good nor bad, that we don't have to love our bodies, but acknowledge what they do for us and go about our lives without getting stuck on what they look or feel like," she said.

Neutrality also extends to categorizing food, and Benner advised calling foods what they are – ice cream or broccoli, not "junk" or "healthy," she said. "Food should not be a moral issue. Moralizing and labeling foods perpetuates diet culture and can contribute to shame and guilt around eating."

ParentsTogether also called on social media platforms to:

  • Remove extreme content and stop sending weight-loss material to kids' accounts: Social media platforms should remove the most extreme and dangerous content such as promoting skin lightening, the group said.

  • Create parental account settings. That way, parents can see what their kids see and initiate conversations about bodies and health.

  • Feature diverse content creators. The group urges platforms to promote creators with diverse personal appearances and backgrounds and those who support body acceptance and self-love.

ParentsTogether had collected more than 2,700 signatures by Jan. 13 on an online petition asking Instagram and TikTok to "Stop pushing extreme weight loss and dieting on kids."

Pinterest became the first major platform to prohibit all weight loss ads, according to its announcement in July 2021.

The platform announced, "It's an expansion of our ad policies that have long prohibited body shaming and dangerous weight loss products or claiWe encourage others in the industry to do the same and acknowledge, once and for all, that there's no such thing as one size fits all."

Kloer and Benner report no relevant financial relationships.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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