How to Talk to Your Kids About Videos That Encourage Eating Disorders

By Jessica Jackson
April 21, 2023

YouTube has recently updated its guidelines to protect children from the harmful effects of eating disorder videos. The popular platform is now prohibiting or age-gating videos that could prompt users, particularly tweens and teens, to imitate dangerous behaviors associated with eating disorders. 

But how do you identify these videos if your kid is watching them on other platforms, like TikTok or Instagram? And how do you talk about it?

The Scope of the Problem

Eating disorders are a serious issue among children and teens. Girls are more than twice as likely to develop an eating disorder, and up to 13.2% of girls will have an eating disorder before the age of 20. Most girls experience the first symptoms of an eating disorder between 13 and 17 years old. 

Eating disorder content can be especially harmful to teen and preteen girls, who are more susceptible to the pressures of societal beauty standards and body image issues. Research shows that girls are at a higher risk of developing eating disorders than boys, with the majority of cases occurring during adolescence.

But certain types of eating disordered behavior (including binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, and fasting for weight loss) are nearly as common among males as they are among females. Although boys are less likely to develop eating disorders, they are at a higher risk of dying from it when they do because it’s more likely to be overlooked. 

All of this translates to millions of young people struggling with these life-threatening conditions.

The Impact of Watching Videos That Feature Eating Disordered Behaviors

Videos that glorify or promote eating disorders have long been removed from YouTube. The updated guidelines now also target content that could lead at-risk users to imitate harmful behaviors. For example, videos that show or encourage purging after eating or severely restricting calories will be prohibited. Likewise, content that promotes weight-based bullying in the context of eating disorders will also be banned.

Child psychologists and eating disorder experts have long warned about the potential harm of such content. Multiple studies have found the pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards can be heightened by social media and online content, including harmful eating disorder videos.

Consuming harmful eating disorder content can have specific consequences, such as:

  • Lower self-esteem: Exposure to content that promotes an unhealthy and unrealistic body image can lead to a decrease in self-esteem and self-worth.
  • Increased risk of depression and anxiety: Studies have shown that kids who struggle with body dissatisfaction are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Social isolation: Kids who feel ashamed or embarrassed about their bodies may withdraw from social activities, further exacerbating feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Identifying Eating Disorder Videos

By understanding the various types of harmful content, you can be better prepared to identify when your tween or teen is watching videos that are encouraging eating disordered behaviors. For example, if you're using a monitoring app to review your child's Instagram feed, you should be concerned if you spot videos that promote extreme diets or dangerous "detox" diets. Here are some other categories to watch out for:

Pro-eating disorder (pro-ED) content: These videos explicitly promote eating disorders as a lifestyle choice or weight loss method. They may provide "tips and tricks" for engaging in harmful behaviors like starving, binging, or purging, and often use language that glorifies eating disorders.

Thinspiration or fitspiration videos: These videos showcase images of extremely thin or fit individuals as inspiration for weight loss or fitness goals. While some may seem motivational, they often perpetuate unrealistic body standards and can contribute to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviors.

Extreme dieting or detox videos: Content that promotes extreme calorie restriction, fad diets, or detox regimens can be harmful, especially to impressionable tweens and teens. These videos may encourage unhealthy and unsustainable eating habits, potentially leading to eating disorders.

Food and weight-related challenges: Some online challenges focus on food consumption or weight loss, such as the "Cotton Ball Diet" or "Skinny Girl Challenge." These challenges can normalize disordered eating behaviors and may encourage tweens and teens to engage in dangerous practices to achieve the challenge's goals.

Weight-based bullying or body-shaming videos: Content that mocks, ridicules, or humiliates individuals based on their weight or appearance can be damaging to a person’s self-esteem and may contribute to the development of eating disorders. It's essential to teach your child the importance of empathy and respect for others, regardless of their appearance.

By familiarizing yourself with these categories, you can be more vigilant in monitoring the content your tween or teen is exposed to online. Encourage open communication about their online experiences and make sure they understand the potential harm in consuming videos that encourage or enable eating disorders.

How to Talk to Your Kids About the Dangers of Videos That Encourage Eating Disorders

Even when videos don't directly promote eating disorders, they can still subtly encourage harmful behaviors and attitudes. As a parent, it's crucial to address these more insidious influences and educate your tweens and teens on the potential long-term effects of watching such content. Here are some tips on how to discuss the dangers of these videos with your child.

Recognize the subtlety

Explain to your child that harmful content doesn't always appear dangerous at first glance. It may be disguised as health or fitness advice, motivational stories, or even innocent entertainment. By recognizing the subtlety, they can be more aware of the potential harm in certain videos.

Emphasize the cumulative impact

Explain to your child that even though a single video may not seem harmful, the more they watch, the more likely they are to internalize these unhealthy messages, which can gradually shape their attitudes and beliefs about their body, food, and self-worth.

Encourage critical thinking

Ask them to consider the video's purpose, the message it's conveying, and whether it promotes a healthy or harmful view of body image and eating habits.

Share real-life examples

Provide examples of how subtle messages in videos can lead to harmful behaviors, such as extreme dieting or excessive exercise. These examples can help illustrate the dangers of seemingly innocuous content.

Promote positive influences

Encourage your child to follow social media accounts and watch videos that promote body positivity, self-acceptance, and healthy habits. By surrounding themselves with positive influences, they can counteract the negative effects of harmful content.

Keep the conversation open

Make sure your child knows they can come to you with any concerns or questions about the content they encounter online. Establishing open communication will help ensure they feel comfortable discussing potential issues with you.

By discussing the subtle and long-term effects of videos that encourage eating disordered behaviors, you can help your tweens and teens develop a healthy and critical approach to the content they consume. This awareness and understanding can protect them from the potentially harmful impact of such videos, whether they’re watching a video on TikTok or reading about someone’s experience online.

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