Social media appears to be contributing to a big increase in the prevalence of eating disorders among children and teenagers over the last few years.
ChildLine, a U.K. charity, told The
that the number of young people calling its emergency hotline or using the online version increased 110% over the last three years, with girls outnumbering boys by 32 to 1, and teens
ages 14-15 the most likely to reach out for help.
Eating disorders can’t be attributed to any one factor, but ChildLine directed some of the blame to social media, especially
“pro-ana” (“pro-anorexia”) and “thinspiration” Web sites and social-media profiles. At such sites, people share pictures and anecdotes that serve to encourage
themselves and other users to pursue unhealthy weight goals.
Many girls who contacted the ChildLine hotlines said they compared themselves to peers and celebrities, which sounds like
a process enabled by social media (and media in general). The Independent
quoted Sue Minto, the head of ChildLine, as saying that “the 24/7 nature of social-media
places huge pressures on our children and young people. which in turn, can lead to significant emotional issues.”
The ChildLine study follows the death of a 15-year-old London
girl, Tallulah Wilson, who killed herself after visiting pro-anorexia Web sites. Her mother, Sarah Wilson, stated at the inquest: “Her sisters and I did everything we could to keep her safe, but
she had fallen into a world of nightmares. She was in the clutches of a toxic digital world where in the final few weeks, we could no longer reach her.”
The Wilson case prompted
British culture secretary Maria Miller to call for a crackdown on the “poison” circulating through social-media Web sites, although it’s not clear what effective measures can be
taken. Many social-media sites, including Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, already have policies prohibiting any content that encourages self-harm, including eating disorders. But their enforcement is
spotty and easily evaded, for example, by using coded hashtags or simply changing the spelling of keywords