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Some 220 people have attended support groups and 180 have been treated at an eating disorder clinic in Preston since 2020.

Many young people have replaced crash diets with an addiction to exercise since lockdown ended to cope with social anxiety and low self-esteem as they struggle to disconnect from their online world and resume a normal life, reveals the mental health nurse.

Shelley Perry, clinical director of SEED, says many children are now more obsessed with their bodies and how they compare to others because they’ve lived on image-driven apps like Instagram for so long. While children with eating disorders are usually diagnosed in adolescence, doctors are seeing more and more children under the age of 13 becoming seriously ill.

Many kids are now more obsessed with their bodies and how they compare to others because they’ve lived on image-driven apps like Instagram for so long, says an eating disorder therapist. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images).

Shelley said: “We saw a lot more youngsters than ever before, up to six or seven years old. It is absolutely heartbreaking.

“They’re so sensitive to low self-esteem at a time when they’re developing their identity, and it can cause depression and anxiety.”

How has the pandemic helped trigger eating disorders in children?

Post-pandemic life has helped heighten their social anxiety, with Shelley saying, “They’re afraid of change and we’re seeing more autistic traits. They’ve been locked up for so long and now they’re starting to mingle with people again, but they’re not used to society’s expectations of how they should be.

Shelley Perry, SEED Clinical Director.

Many children are two years behind in development due to social isolation and restricted schooling during the lockdown, she adds. Pressures to quickly return to normality and meet the expectations of adults who have more experience of pre-pandemic life are forcing them to retreat behind screens and abuse their bodies as they try to take control of their life.

“There is enormous pressure for them to succeed academically and the stress for them is really difficult. They’ve been thrown in the deep end and they don’t know how to cope,” she said.

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How Does Peer Pressure Contribute to Eating Disorders?

Shelley Perry outside Breathe Therapies Eating Disorders Support and Wellness Services.

Many children’s online worlds are plagued by cyberbullying, leading to body dysmorphia, Shelley reveals.

“They are terrified of being rejected by groups of friends, with some kids being really cruel and bullying others over little things, like their hair and makeup.

“Social media harassment has almost increased since the lockdown. There are many children with eating disorders who are bullied online. It’s become a huge problem because bullying is almost the norm, how cool and trendy it is to be mean, to act out online, and to text horrible things.

“I sat with a girl in session as she was text abused by so called friends. She didn’t even realize she was being bullied – she thought it was normal.

Shelley Perry suffered from an eating disorder in the past. Photographer – Neil O’Connor.

“But that’s at the heart of his eating disorder. She thought that if she looked good, she would be accepted by them.

How are some social media influencers contributing to the problem?

Shelley thinks some young people lack parental or professional guidance to make healthy choices and develop dangerous habits after reading misinformation online. More regulation is needed to prevent non-professionals from buying social media followers and creating the illusion of being an authority on health and fitness, she adds, in order to curb the spreading misinformation.

“There are unqualified people presenting themselves as mental health practitioners. For the mentally ill, it is dangerous.

“I worked with a girl who had a really hard time accepting that she had an eating disorder. She wasn’t well but she was convinced she could do it on her own. Three months later, she was back in a very bad state. She started with a PT in the gym and all she did [to become healthy] had just been completely knocked down. After reaching a healthy weight with us, she lost everything and was back to square one.

How does social media promote eating disorders?

Some content on apps like Instagram has been promoting eating disorders with hashtags like #Thinspiration for at least a decade, according to the nurse. That’s why the charity Beat is campaigning for Instagram to crack down on ‘pro-ana’ or ‘pro-mia’ pages – content that inspires anorexic and bulimic behavior.

The Tik Tok video platform has also come under fire from health activists who say its content glorifies eating disorders. The app has more than 800 million users, 41% of whom are between 16 and 24 years old.

“There are many pro-anorexia sites that promote unhealthy lifestyles, so we encourage young people to quit Instagram if they have an eating disorder,” Shelley said.

“They tend to withdraw from their social circle, feel misunderstood and alone, and seek out other people online who understand their mindset. This makes them feel in control.

Shelley says they are often perfectionists who lack insight into their disease, adding, “They tend to think it’s a good life choice and want to build communities and befriend people with eating disorders that have no intention of being cured. They compare themselves and what they do to other people. It makes them feel better about themselves, but in a destructive way. They talk about individual issues like the number of calories they eat in an effort to increase their intake. It’s not just for support.

“The nature of the disease is so competitive and often the purpose of these accounts is for girls to inspire each other to be the best anorexics.”

A spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, said: “We want everyone to have a safe experience on our platforms, especially young people. We have never allowed content promoting eating disorders and have removed the account that came to our attention.