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New ‘shadow pandemic’: How COVID has contributed to a surge in eating disorders in young children

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While the entire world is grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, doctors and mental health experts are shedding light on what they’re calling a new “shadow pandemic” — a surge in eating disorders in young people.

Dr. Debra Katzman, professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto and SickKids hospital, and Christina Bartha, executive director of the brain and mental health program at SickKids, spoke with Global News Radio 640 Toronto’s Mike Stafford on the Morning Show on Thursday.

According to SickKids, social isolation and limits on extra-curricular activities caused by the pandemic are taking a toll on young people, with the hospital seeing children as young as nine and 10 being diagnosed with an eating disorder (ED).

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The hospital said not only are patients suffering from EDs becoming younger but they’re also presenting “sicker and more underweight” than before the pandemic began. The wait time for referrals has also almost doubled during the pandemic to upwards of six months.

Bartha said the trend became increasingly obvious in August and has only gotten worse with the peak coming in November and December with more children coming to the hospital.

Read more: Why the coronavirus pandemic is triggering those with eating disorders

“Social isolation, a lack of routine, being disconnected from their peers, increased social media and exposure to all kinds of messages like fat-phobic messages … all of these things are contributing to the surge,” said Katzman, adding it’s not only an issue being seen in Toronto but across Ontario and Canada.

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Children are coming to the hospital severely underweight and with heart issues such as a low heart rate and problems with salt in their bodies, Katzman said.

“We are seeing children who are much sicker.”

As for how the eating disorders are manifesting, the doctor said children appear to be restricting their intake, but are also purging and vomiting, as well.

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“It’s really hard for young people to be connected virtually only. So much of their interactions and development are done when they’re interacting face-to-face. There’s a significant amount of pressure that way,” Katzman continued. ” I also think that young people and families are learning how to do this … this new way of interacting.”

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The constant bombardment of COVID-19-related news has also taken a toll on children, creating confusion and more anxiety, which can manifest in the form of issues like eating disorders.

The internet can also be boundary-less, said Bartha.

“Kids are able to access all kinds of information on the internet related to body image, dieting … physical appearance, what they’re striving for in terms of an ideal presentation,” she said. “Since the pandemic has started, we have had all kinds of access to online exercise videos and many things that kids have almost an over-exposure to now.”

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Bartha said SickKids is working to address the wait-list issue and are coming up with strategies to also help pediatricians and health-care partners in the community, who Katzman added have really stepped up to help out with the new crisis, including providing beds for children who are ill.

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“We’re working together in making sure young people with eating disorders, with life-threatening eating disorders are being taken care of,” said Katzman.

Bartha said eating disorders have become a high-priority for SickKids.

READ MORE: For people in addiction recovery, self-isolation can be harmful

What can parents do?

It’s important that parents identify if their child is experiencing any issues or symptoms and to reach out to their primary health-care physician, both women said.

Maintaining structure and keeping routine in place helps to calm children, while also making sure they’re still allowed to keep in contact with their friends and family.

Parents should also make sure they are taking care of themselves and managing their own anxiety, because if they’re struggling that could also trickle down to their children.

Finally, parents should make sure to be as aware as they can be of what their children may be watching and reading and seeing on the internet.

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