Child eating disorders soar amid the pandemic as isolation from friends and cancelled exams promote stress, experts say
- Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health asked parents to look out for signs
- Social media use can give children unrealistic ideas of how body should look
- Some paediatricians had seen eating disorders quadruple compared to last year
Eating disorders in children have soared during the pandemic and experts are now warning parents to be vigilant.
Isolation from friends, exam cancellations and loss of extracurricular activities caused stress and encouraged them to focus on eating and exercise, suggested the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
Increased use of social media while staying at home can also give children unrealistic ideas of how their body should look, say experts.
Eating disorders in children have soared during the pandemic and experts are now warning parents to be vigilant (file image)
This is combined with anxiety about family money troubles, catching the virus and loved ones dying from it.
The College said some paediatricians had seen eating disorders, including anorexia, quadruple compared to last year.
It has asked parents to look out for signs in their children.
Dr Karen Street, officer for child mental health at the RCPCH, said: ‘Eating disorders are often related to a need for control – something many young people feel they have lost during the pandemic.
‘Many have described needing a focus and goals which, in the absence of anything else, has for some centred around eating and exercise.’
Children are becoming more severely ill by the time they are seen, experts warned.
This is believed to be due to reduced access to support and face-to-face consultations during the pandemic, as waiting lists often become ‘overwhelmed’.
The RCPCH spoke to paediatricians from around the country and all reported a rise in eating disorders believed to be linked to the pandemic.
Dr Simon Chapman, a consultant paediatrician at King’s College Hospital, said: ‘I’ve worked in eating disorders for ten years and I have never known us to be so busy. Referrals since March have tripled.’
New data from NHS Digital shows hospital admissions for children aged 18 and under with eating disorders have soared in the past two years.
Increased use of social media while staying at home can also give children unrealistic ideas of how their body should look, say experts (file image)
Admissions for teenagers and young children have risen by almost a fifth in England, from 4,160 in 2017-18 to 4,962 in the last financial year.
There were 418 admissions among children aged ten to 12 in 2019-20, which was up 12 per cent on the previous year.
Almost half of these were for anorexia in girls, who can be influenced by social media.
The figures are for the 12 months until the end of March – the start of lockdown – and it is feared the pandemic has made matters worse.
Doctors have advised parents that eating disorders can start with small signs, such as cutting food into small pieces and eating very slowly, avoiding eating with others, wearing baggy clothes to hide weight loss and excessive exercising.
Dr Nancy Bostock, of Cambridge University Hospital, said: ‘In our Tier Four under-13s mental health inpatient unit, we have seen a three to fourfold increase in children referred to our service with eating disorders.’
Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s mental health director, said: ‘The pandemic has hit young people particularly hard… it is sadly a likely fact of the pandemic’s impact that more young people will need to seek out support for mental ill health.’