Eating disorders in teens skyrocketing during pandemic

Experts are concerned about a dramatic rise in eating disorders among teenagers over the past year. Possible explanations for the increase include teens’ loss of familiar routines and regular connections with friends, anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic, boredom, and food insecurity at home.

Bryn Austin, professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders, said in an April 28, 2021, New York Times article that the demand for eating disorder treatment “is way outstretching the capacity to address it.”

She noted that the amount of time that teens spend on social media—more than usual during the pandemic—can increase their risk of developing an eating disorder, as they compare their bodies to images found online. “That comparison creates a downward spiral in terms of body image and self-esteem,” she said. “It makes them more likely to adopt unhealthy weight control behaviors.”

Austin co-authored a June 1, 2021, opinion piece in the Times Union of Albany, New York, calling out the weight loss and dietary supplements industries for entering “right on cue to offer their products as solutions to vulnerable consumers struggling with the mental distress and fears of weight gain during the pandemic.” She added, “Social media platforms are more than willing to oblige advertisers seeking to profit from the body image concerns of teens.”

Both in the Times Union piece, and in a May 23, 2021 Letter to the Editor in the New York Times, Austin wrote about the importance of passing legislation prohibiting the sale of weight-loss and muscle-building dietary supplements—which often contain toxic ingredients—to children.

Read the New York Times article: Eating Disorders in Teens Have ‘Exploded’ in the Pandemic

Read Austin’s Times Union opinion piece: Keep the diet industry from feeding on teenagers’ fears

Read Austin’s New York Times Letter to the Editor: Coming to Terms With Weight Issues