Is excessive screen time during the COVID-19 crisis triggering binge eating in pre-teens?


In recent months, numerous research studies have highlighted the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis (and the increased isolation) on young people’s mental health

During the pandemic (and multiple lockdowns), a dramatic increase in screen time has been seen amongst children, teenagers and young people – to continue their education remotely, maintain connections with family and friends, and fill their free time by watching endless TV shows/movies.

A recent study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, suggests that these endless hours spent watching TV, texting and scrolling through social media could be responsible for a rise in the development of a binge-eating disorder in later years.

While this study was conducted before the pandemic, its findings are particularly relevant today, given the fact that children are currently exposed to unprecedented levels of screen time.

What is binge eating?

Binge eating sufferers eat large quantities of food in a short period and often can’t remember doing so after the event. They are often unable to stop themselves from binging, and it becomes almost like a ritual. A loss of control is experienced during the binge, with shame or guilt typically following later.

Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the US and in the long-term can be life-threatening, significantly increasing the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

How can screen time lead to binge eating?

The study analysed data gathered from over 11,000 US children, aged 9–10 years, including how much time they spent on six different media types, including TV, mobile phones (texting) and social media.

Research for the study also included parents’ information about their pre-teens’ binge-eating behaviours, including the frequency and characteristics of over-eating and related issues.

Study author, Dr Jason Nagata – Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco – reports:

‘Children may be more prone to overeating while distracted in front of screens.

They may also be exposed to more food advertisements on television …

Binge-watching television may lead to binge-eating behaviours because of overconsumption and a loss of control.’

The cohort study revealed that each additional hour of screen time per day was associated with a 62% higher risk of binge-eating disorder a year later. Each extra hour spent specifically on social networking, texting or watching TV shows/movies showed a significantly greater link with a binge-eating disorder at the 1-year follow-up.

The percentage of children with binge-eating disorder increased from 0.7% at the beginning of the study to 1.1% a year later. The study authors noted that this rate of increase was expected to continue into the late teens and early adulthood.

What does the future hold?

Further studies are required to categorically prove that excessive screen time can directly cause a binge eating disorder, as senior study author, Kyle Ganson – Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Social Work – notes: 

‘This study emphasises the need for more research on how screen time

impacts the well-being of young people now and in the future …

Exposure to social media and unattainable body ideals may lead to

a negative body image and subsequent binge eating.’

Dr Jason Nagata concludes: 

Although screen time can have important benefits such as education and socialisation during the pandemic, parents should try to mitigate risks from excessive screen time such as binge eating. Parents should regularly talk to their children about screen-time usage and develop a family media use plan.’

Information and support for parents

Lockdowns during the pandemic are an extremely challenging time for most young people, who are likely to have increased their screen time in order to stay in touch with friends and continue their education remotely. 

If your child or teenager is engaging in too much screen time and displaying symptoms of binge eating, then it’s essential to take action to help them sooner rather than later.

Dr Karen Street, from The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), comments:

‘We know that the earlier eating disorders are spotted, the better the chance a young person can be successfully treated … If you’ve noticed a difference in the way your child or teenager approaches food, and it concerns you, talk to them about what’s normal and what is not – often those with eating disorders will try to convince you all is OK but trust your instincts.’

In addition to your parental support, love and attention, young people will need professional help to treat and overcome the disease.

We are here to help.

Contact us today for a confidential, no-obligation conversation with one of our professionals.

Fiona Yassin is the International Clinical Director at The Wave Clinic, Kuala Lumpur. She is an accredited psychotherapist and supervisor, specialising in children, teenagers and families.

Fiona is:

  • a member of the National Council of Psychotherapists (UK) and International Council of Psychotherapists (Registration Number #361609)
  • a trained EMDR therapist (Level 1 & 2) and member of EMDRIA (Registration Number #100054651)
  • a member of the Association of Child Protection Professionals
  • a member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals
  • trained in CBT-E (Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry – CREDO) and FREED (King’s College, London).
  • accredited and licensed to supervise clinicians (UNCG)
  • a fellow of APPCH.

Fiona has a specialist interest in eating disorders and borderline personality disorder. She is co-founder of The Wave Clinic, Kuala Lumpur, home to Asia’s only Eating Disorder and Adolescent Mental Health Programs.

She is also a director of The Wave Trust, a charitable enterprise supporting mental health, child poverty and educational developments in South East Asia. 

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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