Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center
To some extent, almost everyone’s world has been turned upside down by COVID-19.
Even if the only real effects you’ve felt have been related to a shift in work environment, fewer dinners out, and the need to remember your mask, the pandemic has played at least some role in the way we live our lives.
The new reality has been especially hard to swallow for adolescents, whose formative years have suddenly been absent of the sleepovers, sporting events, school dances, and graduation parties they’ve come to expect. Remote learning wasn’t easy on anyone, whether you were missing the in-person adjustment to your first year of school or the eager anticipation of your last.
With such considerable change comes significant hardship. Teens have experienced a major uptick in physical and mental health consequences, including eating disorders.
That has been particularly true for adolescent girls. New data from the Epic Health Research Network shows that there has been a 30% spike in eating disorder-related hospital admissions among girls ages 12-18 during the pandemic . Overall, eating disorder diagnoses increased by 25% for that same age range compared with pre-pandemic trends.
For an age range that was starting to understand the importance of routine, many predictable schedules and habits have gone out the window. The familiar rhythm of the school day, the structure of classes and extracurricular activities, and in-person socialization all disappeared for an extended stretch.
At a time when many young people felt a loss of control, food and owning their individual eating habits felt like factors that we’re still in their power to command.
But that desire for some semblance of control is only one reason why eating disorders have spiked among adolescent girls. Let’s take a look at some others.
Teens have spent more time than ever on social media during the pandemic, as isolation from some of their friends and peer groups has led to an increase in finding ways to fit in online. Aside from the generally negative effects too much social media can have on mental health, viewing idealized body images from both peers and influencers on social apps can play a role in body dissatisfaction and disordered eating.
Taking it a step further, with a lack of access to fitness classes, gym, or sports — really, anywhere young people routinely find physical activity outlets — many went online to find exercise routines. What they often found were harmful messages about “thinspiration” that celebrated slim, sculpted bodies and diets, or an overload of content discussing how to avoid the so-called quarantine 15.
Many families have lost a source of income during the pandemic, and plenty of households relied on school breakfasts and lunches to feed their children. With those options often wiped away early on due to remote learning, food insecurity became an even more pressing concern in communities across the country. According to Feeding America, more than 42 million people, including a potential 13 million children, have experienced food insecurity because of the pandemic .
That has forced families to turn to less expensive — and often less healthy — options to survive. Body-conscious teens who have gained weight tend to turn to behaviors like purging, fasting, skipping meals, or abusing laxatives.
A history of anxiety is a common psychological risk factor for disordered eating, and so is a trait many adolescents share as they put pressure on themselves to succeed — perfectionism or high achievement.
With certain academic, athletic, or extracurricular activities suddenly looking much different, a lot of teen girls had too much time on their hands. That can lead to eating out of boredom or excessive snacking. Whereas the school day may provide the necessary structure to keep high achievers moving toward their goals, remote learning and fewer outside pursuits can leave those students bored. That disinterest can manifest in an increased consumption of food or excessive exercise.
Eating disorders can affect anyone, but adolescent girls are among those most at risk. They are not a passing phase, they can occur at any body size, and they can happen to people of all socioeconomic statuses.
If someone you care about is displaying signs of an eating disorder, talk to a trusted physician who can help you find the right level of care. Early detection and intervention can save lives.
References: Reno, J. (2021, May 16). Eating disorders among teens have risen during COVID-19: What parents can do. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/eating-disorders-among-teens-have-risen-during-covid-19-what-parents-can-do.  The impact of the coronavirus on food insecurity. (March 2021). Feeding America. https://www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/2021-03/National%20Projections%20Brief_3.9.2021_0.pdf.
About Timberline Knolls
Timberline Knolls is a residential treatment center located on 43 beautiful acres just outside Chicago, offering a nurturing recovery environment for women and girls age 12 and older who are struggling with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health conditions. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is available for step-down and for women to directly admit. By serving with uncompromising care, relentless compassion, and an unconditional joyful spirit, we help our residents and clients help themselves in their recovery. For more information, please visit www.timberlineknolls.com.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on December 27, 2021. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on December 27, 2021 by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC