By Amy Kennedy, education director of The Kennedy Forum
Social media giant TikTok, which approximately 70% of U.S. teens use, recently announced it will ban content promoting disordered eating. The company said it wanted to respond to the fact that people can “struggle with unhealthy eating patterns and behavior without having an eating disorder diagnosis.” TikTok has now joined the ranks of other social media apps looking to promote their understanding of well-documented mental health impacts.
It’s critical to recognize that TikTok’s largest demographic, girls between the ages of 10 and 19, is also the demographic most likely to develop an eating disorder—the third most chronic illness among adolescent females. In other words, TikTok’s key audience is one of our most vulnerable populations.
The most widely known contributor to the development of eating disorders is our sociocultural idealization of thinness, as reported by the National Eating Disorders Association. Young adolescence in particular is a time when kids pay very close attention to the actions of their peers—learning the behaviors they perceive as imperative to social success. And now, with an easy way to monitor their peers’ highlight reels at any given time, young people are bombarded with lessons on how to dress, act, and present themselves. These are challenging waters to navigate for even the most confident of teens.
So, it should come as no surprise that new research suggests youth who engage with social media are more likely to develop an eating disorder. Though many social media companies have announced initiatives to address the issue, current data and projections show the prevalence of eating disorders is only increasing. Existing initiatives are not enough. Recent senate hearings demonstrate just how powerful these apps can be in encouraging disordered eating.
And while adolescent females currently comprise the largest statistically known affected population for EDs, it’s critical to recognize that these conditions impact individuals across all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes. A study from 2015 found that binge eating disorder, for instance, may be nearly as prevalent in men as it is in women. LGBTQIA youth likewise bear significantly higher risk for developing an eating disorder overall.
Thankfully, some insurance companies are beginning to make strides in covering critical care for eating disorders. Behavioral health, for example, was Cigna’s fastest-growing customer relationship in 2021, including a contract with Equip—the first fully virtual eating disorder treatment program bringing evidence-based care to families at home – an organization I’m proud to work with.
Despite this progress, commercial insurance coverage for eating disorder treatment is still generally abysmal. Eating disorders continue to be the single longest and costliest mental and/or substance use disorder when it comes to hospitalization. It’s estimated that 70% of Americans fail to receive treatment for eating disorders, largely due to insufficient insurance coverage, even though 10% of the population are directly affected by them.
Eating disorders also top the charts as the second deadliest mental health condition, falling behind only opioid use disorder. They account for one death every 52 minutes. It’s an area of crisis medicine that needs urgent reform.
We desperately need to enforce equal coverage via the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. Most families cannot afford to pay for quality, evidence-based treatment out of pocket. And, following the Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Department of Treasury’s recent reports, it’s clear that our current system continues to fail to provide parity in health care coverage of mental conditions, including eating disorders. Out-of-pocket payments are too often still the only option available. To that end, The Kennedy Forum will be partnering with U.S. Secretary of HHS Xavier Becerra in the spring of 2022 to review the immediate actions that must be taken to bridge the gap.
We have to do everything we can to normalize a national conversation concerning something that affects so many families. This National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 21 – February 27), please do your part and help to spread the word. You can find great resources here.
Recently, I was inspired to see an article about a high school in Colorado that raised the curtains on a modified version of the play “No One Hears Unless You Scream.” They integrated a powerful new storyline about a student struggling with bulimia. If our youth can recognize the gravity of eating disorders within our culture, our insurance companies and social media platforms can certainly do the same.