The pandemic has left many people feeling depressed and anxious, and teenagers and young adults are especially vulnerable. Eating disorders have jumped in the last year as more young people spent time on screens, according to new research from UC San Francisco.
Hospitalizations at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital doubled since March 2020 — for eating disorders such as binging, bulimia, and compulsive exercise. The National Eating Disorders Association has also received more calls to their hotline.
Jason Nagata, M.D., is professor of pediatrics at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, where he specializes in eating disorders. He says teenagers who spend more time in front of screens — watching TV and texting — are at a higher risk to develop binge eating disorders.
“For a lot of teenagers who have been more socially isolated — because they're not able to attend in-person school — there has been distress and anxiety, and even depression related to that.”
Nagata points out that screen time has been linked to these disorders, but it’s also a source of connection for youth.
“The link to screen time is complex because youth have so many different forms of screens that they're exposed to now. On the one hand, there's social media, like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok. Youth are reliant on more and more these days for socialization, especially when in-person social gatherings are not safe or not recommended,” Nagata says.
He says social media platforms, such as Instagram, are image-based and might provide a distorted perception of reality through filters. He says lots of teens with eating disorders or body image issues have attributed to being on-camera during virtual learning as a trigger for their concerns.
According to Negata, binge eating is a psychological disorder that’s characterized by eating an objectively large amount of food in a short period of time, and experiencing an inability to stop eating.
He says some teenagers have gained weight during the pandemic, which they call the “quarantine 15,” due to overeating or a more sedentary lifestyle. And it’s led to heightened body image concerns.
Others, including student athletes, have restricted their eating or compulsively exercised. He says that’s an example of individuals trying to regain a semblance of control in their lives.
“There's so much that has been lost during the pandemic like school and sports and whatever. If they can control their diet and or their exercise, it's sort of a way of gaining control over one aspect of their life.”
What to look for and what to do
Nagata says red flag behaviors can include a preoccupation with appearance, weight, exercise, or food intake in a way that worsens someone’s quality of life.
“These teenagers may start to withdraw from usual activities they enjoy with friends or family meals because of these concerns about eating.“
As warning signs begin to appear, he recommends speaking with a pediatrician or primary care doctor who can assess the situation.
Teenagers can also share how they’re feeling with their physician, a counselor at school, or friends.
Nagata also recommends the National Eating Disorders Associations Helpline, which can be reached by phone or text at (800) 931-2237. In crises, you can text “NEDA” to 741741 to talk with a trained volunteer.