“Recent media reports highlighting NHS statistics which show a rapid increase in the number of boys and young men being admitted to hospital suffering from eating disorders are welcome, if only for helping to draw attention to this issue. Although girls and young women are still around seven times more likely to be treated for an eating disorder, prevalence rates are increasing much more rapidly in males.
Some of this increase may be explained by boys and young men simply being more willing to seek help. Although the stigma surrounding mental illness is decreasing for both sexes, historically men have been much less willing to admit to having psychological problems. Stereotypes surrounding masculinity have contributed to a culture where young men often feel compelled to conceal their distress, and this is reflected in the fact that suicide is much more common, and actually the primary cause of mortality in this group. If young men are increasingly feeling more able to seek help, then this can only be welcomed.
However, the wider concern is what is causing the increase in eating disorders in young people, and especially young men? For many sufferers, poor and distorted body image is clearly implicated, and researchers and clinicians have started to focus on the potential negative influences of social media in this regard. Although the evidence is far from conclusive, it seems likely that, at least for some vulnerable individuals, social media may contribute to their body image concerns and associated eating disorders. A culture of social media use which encourages young people to constantly post updates and images of themselves, which are often then judged by their peers, puts them under extreme pressure to focus on their appearance, and equates this with social acceptance and worth. At the same time, young people are bombarded with images which depict often unrealistic or unattainable standards of attractiveness.
This social comparison aspect of social media is reflected in sex differences in the body image concerns of young men versus young women. In contrast to a typical female drive for thinness, young men are often driven towards achieving greater and more defined muscularity (a phenomenon which has been labeled “bigorexia”). Although it might seem that spending a bit more time in the gym might not be too much of a problem, for some, this can become a pathological obsession, and, especially where it is associated with related issues such as steroid abuse and extreme fasting, this can have dangerous consequences.
Clearly, social media play a central role in the lives of many young people, and efforts by parents and teachers to ban or drastically cut down on their use are likely to be futile or even counter-productive, given their benefits in terms of allowing individuals who might otherwise be socially isolated to connect with each other. Instead, educating young people about the reality and potential hazards of social media may help to address some of these negative effects. Studies have shown that educating young women about the techniques used to manipulate images of “size-zero” models in mainstream media advertisements decreases the negative effects of these on their body image. Similarly, educating young people about the artificial and manipulated nature of social media, and the pitfalls of unquestioningly comparing themselves to others in their social networks, could help to protect young people from their potentially negative effects.
Psychologists also know that eating disorders are often fundamentally about control. Young people who have experienced abuse, bullying, trauma or social isolation, or who simply feel powerless to live up to the standards set by others, may feel that the only thing they can take control over is their body. Developing a culture in which we encourage and support young people to accept rather than judge themselves and each other, instead of pressurizing them to constantly strive for perfection, will help them to become more balanced and healthy individuals, and address this rising tide of eating disorders.”