Dr. Kimberly Dennis is the Medical Director at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Does Social Media Really Encourage Eating Disorders?

With dozens of websites catering to the social media phenomenon, teenagers have a wealth of options to connect with each other online – and none is more popular than Facebook. But a new study reveals that the more teens use this platform, the more likely they are to develop an eating disorder. I have long warned against excessive use of social media and hope the new study will encourage more parental involvement in teens’ online activities.

Because Facebook has in some ways replaced interacting face to face with other people, we're becoming over-connected electronically and under-connected to the people around us. Social media can be an excellent tool for staying connected with friends and family when used in a balanced way, but like any tool, it can be abused.

The study also pointed to music videos, TV shows and fashion content as negative influences on teens’ eating habits. But there is hope; parents who get involved with their child’s surfing habits and make it a priority to discuss the content with them can reduce the risk of their child developing negative self body image and ultimately a negative relationship with food.

I'd like to offer the following advice to parents:

Time Out: Planning the time children have with their computers is crucial. Parents should limit the amount of time their children are allowed to be online recreationally. Whether the limit is 30 minutes a day or an hour a day, it is important to give children a set period of time. As time-consuming as this might be for parents, this activity must be monitored carefully.

Lights Out: Parents must also give their children boundaries on how late they can be online. The later the hour, the more likely parents will be asleep and unable to monitor the child’s online activities. It also is the time that objectionable pop up ads are most likely to appear. Worse yet, it is when online predators are scouring the Internet looking for victims.

Location, Location, Location: Time is not the only factor; parents need to know where their children are going on the Internet as well. Look at the site history on your computer. Find out what sites your child frequents and go to those sites to make sure they are appropriate. Prohibit children from visiting sites with objectionable content. If needed, purchase programs designed to block access to certain websites. Also, use a shared/family desktop computer and have it in a common area of the house like the kitchen or living room.

Stay in the Loop: Parents should also network with other parents and talk with them about what they are doing and seeing. Talk about children's patterns of computer use, what limits they set, and other ways they cope with use that may be unhealthy or unbalanced. Parents might also want to make sure their kids use a family computer, a desktop located in an open area of the house like the living room or kitchen where other family members are likely to be.

Keep Informed: Most importantly, parents need to explore what’s going on in their kid’s relationships and lives. If you notice an increase in isolated activities like being on a computer in place of spending face to face time with friends and family, there may be a deeper emotional or relational problem that is manifesting this way. Should you see this behavior, it’s always important to tell your child that you are concerned and seek help from a professional.

Facebook has dismissed the study saying, “Young people are surrounded by photo-shopped models in magazines and airbrushed film stars, but when they spend time on Facebook they're with their friends." But I'd like to counter these claims.

Teenagers will see in Facebook what they want to see. There are positive and empowering ways to use the site, but there are more sinister aspects. They might look at a picture of a friend and still see what they think is wrong with themselves. Frequently, girls and women with eating disorders use the site to post ‘skinny’ pictures of themselves when they are deep into their diseases. This can be triggering to other teens and also to themselves in their recovery. That’s why parental interest is crucial. But even the most involved and careful parent might miss small details that can become big problems in the future.

Learn more about eating disorders in teens from Timberline Knolls and Dr. Dennis.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

New National Study Gives Parents an Urgent Topic for Discussion

A government study has found that more than half a million teens have had an eating disorder, most commonly in the form of binge eating disorder and bulimia, and that most of the time these go untreated. How can we change this downward trend before it gets more out of control? At Timberline Knolls, we think it’s critical for parents to talk to their kids about eating disorders as early as possible, and be open to the possibility their kids (or they) may have an unhealthy relationship with food.

Parents don’t want to believe their child might have a fatal disease, especially when in a lot of cases the teen is still doing well in school and even excelling in sports. And when they suspect a problem, parents a lot of times think it’s ‘just a phase’ and are in denial it needs to be addressed. In addition to the critical need for parents to talk to their kids, is the need for all ‘first responders’ in a teen’s life to be aware of this growing problem. Pediatricians, primary care doctors, school nurses, teachers and coaches need to be educated as well, and not afraid to talk to teens about these issues; because early detection and treatment is critical to ensure a full and healthy life for these teens.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Web site, “Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.”

More programs need to be developed to go into schools to not only speak to the students, but also to the school nurses, teachers and coaches. And parents need to get involved and be educated on the seriousness of these diseases. I also encourage parents to listen to their gut and look for changes in behavior, including kids not eating with the family, frequent trips to the bathroom immediately after meals, changes in diet, and consumption of a large, unhealthy amount of food in one sitting.

More of these studies are needed to get our heads around the scope of the problem. I believe that eating disorders are far more widespread than anyone realizes. But recovery is possible when the right help is utilized and those most closely involved with these teens help them to get the help they so desperately need.