Children are making themselves ill to get the perfect ‘beach body’, warns charity ChildLine, as it launches its first campaign to reduce alarming numbers of youngsters with eating disorders.
The NSPCC’s children’s counselling service has seen increasing numbers seeking help for body image since March 2020. It fears there will be a spike in the run up to this year’s summer holidays.
The campaign comes as the Royal College of Psychiatrists issued a warning about the rise in urgent cases of children with severe eating disorders.
The number of urgent disorder cases referred for specialist treatment almost doubled between 2019-2220 and 2021-2022 from 1,373 to 2,632 while the number of routine cases referred rose by almost fifty percent from 6,661 to 9,825.
Experts say these are the ‘tip of the iceberg’ because most patients are not referred.
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Last year – April 2022 to March 2023 – ChildLine delivered 4,179 counselling sessions to children struggling with these issues. Forty per cent of these took place from June to September, the lead up to and the duration of the six-week summer break.
Eating disorders and body image were the 8th most common concern for children contacting Childline during that time and were higher than calls about physical abuse. Three years previously it ranked 10th.
It says pandemic restrictions meant more children were online at home looking at images of model-like bodies.
Rebekah Hipkiss, a supervisor at ChildLine said: “As adults, even though we know the social media and advertising images that we look at are not realistic, we are still impacted. For young people it has a huge impact. Lack of school, lack of sport, and lack of normal social activity and ability to find friends during lockdown meant children were spending more time looking at images online.
“Influencers were still doing their jobs while children were stuck at home in their bedrooms and we saw a huge rise in eating disorders and concern over body image. Now, post pandemic many young people are still anxious.”
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She added: “Many social media sites and programmes like Love Island are unhelpful – because the whole focus is about the presentation of the images of the people.”
Dr Ashish Kumar, Chair of the Eating Disorders Faculty, at the Royal College of Psychiatrists said: “We have seen a tsunami of children and young people with serious illnesses from eating disorders coming through our doors which could have been handled better if caught at an earlier stage.
“Instead they were forced to internalise and started to micro-scrutinise themselves. Genetics and family conflict can play a part and also social media because people try to emulate what idols, actresses and singers look like and focus on looking good. We need more training, more resources and more research to help children and educate parents.”
One girl aged 16 who contacted Childline said: “Summer brings up all my negative thoughts about my body. Everyone’s talking about getting ‘summer ready’ – how can I not think about it all the time?”
Tamsin, now 24, was 14 when her mental health began to deteriorate. An only child who had a happy childhood in the south-east of England, she was eventually admitted to an in-patient unit for eight months.
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She said: “My eating disorder happened so quickly. Something in my brain just suddenly stopped me from eating. I was barely eating but was going to college.
At 17,she was admitted to an in-patient unit, 100 miles away from her home where she spent eight months.
She missed her college and lost friendships and after she was discharged she became suicidal.
Eventually, aged 18, a friend inspired her to “move forward.” The pair went on holiday and she subsequently moved to London and got a job as a junior filmmaker.
“I really had to push myself to create my network of friends. Having my work responsibility really did push me outside of my comfort zone. Now, I’m a different person. I feel I’ve gone full circle with my depression. I still have bad days but it’s nothing like it used to be.”
- Children can speak to a trained counsellor over the phone on 0800 1111, via email or on a 121 chat on the Childline website.
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