Social media angst fuelling eating disorder fears, says expert

The online community places pressures on young children to achieve the ideal body image

Close up teenage girl friends using cell phones
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On World Eating Disorders Action Day, The National reports on how social media could be fuelling eating disorder fears, how one of the type, orthorexia, is still not medically recognised and the struggles a teacher faced when seeking help for her crippling bulimia in Dubai.

Schools are being urged to help promote the idea of a positive body image to children, amid fears that social media pressure could be a cause of eating disorders.

Research recently commissioned by the Priory Group of mental healthcare facilities in the UK showed that 49 per cent of parents questioned said their child worries about their appearance because of social media and the internet.

Nadia Brooker, a counselling psychologist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, says teachers should be on the lookout for warning signs of eating disorders among their pupils.

“Social media has played a huge factor in influencing how children and young people see themselves and what they feel is expected of their appearance.”

It would be helpful if schools could promote positive body image through education and awareness

Treatment offered at the Priory's Dubai centre follows international guidelines of family-based therapy for children.

Cognitive behavioural therapy and clinical support is offered for adults with an eating

“It would be helpful if schools could promote positive body image through education and awareness,” Ms Brooker said.

She says bulimia affects about 8 per cent of the population, about twice as many people as anorexia.

"While both males and females can be susceptible to developing an eating disorder, research has shown women are more likely than men to have body dissatisfaction.

“It’s important to note differences in symptoms.

“Females are more likely to focus on weight loss, whereas males may be more likely to focus on muscle mass.

“It’s crucial that teaching staff are aware of the signs and symptoms to look out for among students regarding body image and eating disorders.

“Then they are able to address such issues appropriately and refer accordingly. A negative body image can cause low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and eating disorders.”

Dubai’s Rashid Hospital psychiatry ward is one of the few offering specialist inpatient care for eating disorders in the emirate, with parents often choosing to send their children overseas for treatment.

Lina Doumani Khalil, an eating disorder specialist at the Camali Clinic in Dubai Healthcare City, says a greater acceptance of eating disorders would help improve patient services. "Physical and mental-health assessment by a psychiatrist is very necessary as an initial step to determine the level of health risk and need for medication," she said.

“After that, the whole team comes up with a healthcare plan that is shared with the parents and the patient.”

Doctors also say plenty of men's cases go undiagnosed.

"Most feeding and eating disorder cases in the UAE are treated as outpatients," Dr Khalil said.

“If there is an extreme health risk, we refer to Rashid Hospital, but some parents choose to seek hospitalisation outside the country.

"There is still plenty of work to be done here in the UAE to raise awareness, especially among paediatricians, GPs and gynaecologists."

World Eating Disorders Action Day, June 2, is a movement designed for and by people affected by an eating disorder, their families, and the medical professionals who support them. It aims to expand global awareness of eating disorders as genetically linked, treatable illnesses that can affect anyone.