As parents, we try to make sure that our children have a healthy diet and get their ‘five a day!’, but really, all we can do is try! Young people will make their own decisions about what foods they like and dislike, some more fussy than others! But what if we have a deeper concern over our child’s eating habits….?

After a close friend suffered from both bulimia and anorexia I know all too well the heartache a family goes through and the extent of support that is needed.

Eat1According to NHS figures, over the last three years the number of teenagers admitted to hospital with eating disorders has almost doubled.

Experts argue that social media has a significant impact on young people and can contribute towards eating disorders. The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) believe that online images place immense pressure on young people.

From 2011-2013, the number of hospital admissions rose from 1000 to more than 1,800, with the majority being 15 year old girls.

RCP spokeswoman Dr Carolyn Nahman told the BBC: “With one click of a button very vulnerable young people are able to access 10,000 images of ‘perfect looking’ people and as a result often develop body image dissatisfaction and low self esteem, which is a risk factor for disordered eating and more serious eating disorders which can prove fatal”.

Freya Chandler is one young girl, who suffered with anorexia when she was 13 and admits she used images on social media to “guilt” herself into not eating. “It was not really about being skinny but I just became terrified about touching certain foods. I lost so much weight in a short amount of time and my body was shutting down. I was on a 24-hour heart monitor. My organs were failing. You really, really are minutes away from dying.”

Freya was warned by doctors that if she did not eat, she would die and was admitted to a specialist treatment centre for people with eating disorders. Freya’s father recalls: “It was devastating. As parents, we didn’t know what to do. Freya became an alien to us, she was not our daughter. It was like having a stranger in the house.”

Freya, now 15, is healthy and wants other young people to be aware of the dangers of comparing yourself to online images and apps. “…you really are in danger of dying in your sleep.”

According to a recent study, which followed 6,000 young people to the age of 14, children as young as 8 years old can experience body dissatisfaction.

Eat2The study was a collaboration between Micali and partners at the London School of Hygiene and Kings College London and Harvard. The results of the study showed how body dissatisfaction at a young age can lead to eating disorders in adolescence. It also highlighted a difference between boys and girls. It showed that girls with low self-esteem could develop an eating disorder whether or not they were overweight. Yet with boys, it was only the overweight who went on to diet or binge eat in their teens.

Lead author Nadia Micali, based at the Institute of Child Health in London was shocked at the results: “It is really worrying. Girls and boys are growing up faster every year. They are more mature and faced with issues they shouldn’t be faced with so early.”

So how much should children be told about healthy eating? In 2012, an all-party parliamentary group on body image recommended the introduction of mandatory lessons on body image in primary and secondary schools. But it is definitely a controversial subject. Micali argues that warning children about becoming overweight may push some children in the opposite direction.

“You have to think about who you target. Do you tell all boys and girls that they shouldn’t worry about their bodies or do you do it for children at risk? Maybe boys and girls should be treated differently. There are a lot of unknowns that policymakers should think about before starting something like the body image classes that were introduced in UK schools,” she said.

I certainly agree that social media plays a part in how young people perceive themselves, but as a parent we cannot stop them accessing magazines and music videos! But what we can do is be open and honest with our children and ensure they know they can be the same with us.