A steady increase in the rate of eating disorders and suicidality is sweeping our society and putting our teenage girls at risk. As parents, it behooves us to pay attention to societal trends and recognize that even the most stable child, and even the best parents, can’t ignore the fact that society plays a huge role in what happens to our children during adolescence.
It is critical that we pay attention to our girls no matter what their history is, and be aware of the dangers facing them as members of our society.
A study presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting showed that children between the ages of 5 and 17 all showed that rates of hospitalization for suicidality and serious self-harm have doubled over the last decade, and the greatest increase was seen among teenaged girls.
In 2008, girls represented 60% of all children and teenagers hospitalized for suicidality and serious self-harm, and in 2015 that number had increased to 66%. Meanwhile, the rate of suicides tripled in girls aged 10-14 between 1999 and 2014.
Meanwhile, experts estimate that eating disorders have doubled in prevalence since the 1960s, and younger age groups, including children as young as seven, are presenting with eating disorder symptoms. Approximately 90% of people who have eating disorders are female, and the majority of eating disorders begin during childhood and adolescence.
Experts link increases in both suicidality and eating disorders to increased pressure on teens to perform at school, and social media, and cyberbullying.
1. Limit time spent on smartphones, tablets and computers
Studies have shown that teens who spend more than three hours per day on electronic devices have a 35% higher risk of suicide. Technology is both an excellent way to keep in touch and a terrible form of true human connection. Because of technology, many teens today are seeing less of their friends in person, which means they are missing out on critical relationship skill-building and don’t get the emotional support that comes from being face to face with someone. If nothing else, ensure that nobody in the family uses technology during mealtimes and after a specified time at night.
2. Limit use of and monitor social media accounts
Bullying on social media is a serious problem among teenage girls today, and parents must be aware of the social media environment and its impact on their child. As parents we can’t eliminate all social media, but we can monitor our child on social media channels and discuss the challenges involved in direct bullying as well as the more subtle sense of being left out of activities or having too few “likes” on a post.
3. Enforce healthy sleep patterns
Teens require about nine hours of sleep per night, but many teens sleep fewer than seven, which may have something to do with the ability to connect via smartphone deep into the night. Sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on the body, and leaves children more susceptible to depression, eating disorders and suicidality. The most common reason that people give for sleeping with their smartphones is that it’s their alarm clock. Circumvent this problem by purchasing a standalone alarm clock for your child, and require that their smartphone remain outside of their bedroom during sleep hours.
4. Prohibit dieting
Dieting is a known risk factor for eating disorders. Additionally, restricting food, feeling bad about your body, and the other symptoms of eating disorders can dramatically impact mood, leading to suicidality. At least half of 9-11 year olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on a diet, and 82% of girls report that their families are “sometimes” or “very often” dieting. About 25% of all dieters progress to full-blown eating disorders. As parents we can’t prohibit everything in our child’s life, but we can actively prohibit dieting in our homes, and discuss the dangers and futility of dieting frequently.
5. Pay attention to “cries for help”
Studies have shown that 4 out of 5 teen suicide attempts are preceded by clear warning signs. Many of us observe these warning signs, which include changes in personality, behavior, sleep patterns, eating habits, friendships, performance in school, and more. Unfortunately, many of us don’t realize that these are symptoms of a serious problem, or we believe that a “cry for help” is not something to be taken seriously. As parents, we must take all cries for help seriously, no matter how old our child is. Don’t hesitate to talk to your child about the signs of suicide, and don’t hesitate to insist upon therapy even if your child says they are “fine.” There are many resources available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.