Screen Time: Triggering Binge Eating in Young Adults

“One meal at a time, one step at a time—we got this.”

Words by Shelly Kelley

According to the Pew Research Center, by 2018 95% of teens aged 13-17 owned a smartphone and 97% used a social media platform such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. Many adults believe these platforms negatively impact young people’s relationships with others as they engage digitally to make new friends, express their thoughts, and share photos of their daily life-but could social media be negatively impacting their relationships with food as well?

“Social media bombards us with food messages that can make teens and preteens feel stressed over what, where, and how they’re eating. It basically says ‘You need it, and you need it now,'” says Dr. Ellen Rome, head of the Center for Adolescent Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. “These platforms design our food advertising to promote and support binges.”

The term binge has entered the vocabulary of young adults as the act of doing something to excess, whether it be eating a favorite food or watching an entire TV series in one sitting. Often it is seen as a comical situation to incorporate into a GIF or meme. In reality, it’s far from a laughing matter.

Sometimes referred to as compulsive overeating, binge eating disorders are when a person is eating to the point of feeling out of control, uncomfortable, and depressed, with the behavior occurring at least one day a week for three months. Unlike bulimia nervosa, where binges are followed by compensatory behavior that can include vomiting, binge eating disorders involve the same distress but no compensatory behaviors to eliminate the calories. Estimated to affect up to 4 million people in the United States, binge eating is associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other disorders. While it is more common in women than men, it can impact any gender or age.

So, when it comes to preteens and teens-where it can be normal to occasionally consume large amounts of food in a limited period of time-how can parents tell the difference between typical and atypical behavior?

“If you have teens and find your fridge emptying at an alarming speed, you don’t necessarily need to be worried,” Rome says. “Eating a lot without guilt is a normal teen behavior that may be an appropriate growth spurt for their age. It’s when you notice large amounts of food gone with your child showing signs of guilt, distress, and similar emotions of that nature that you need to pause-those are the red flags to look out for.”

While the causes of binge eating disorder are still unknown, it may be triggered by emotional feelings such as anger, sadness, boredom, or worry; and with social media often setting off these feelings it’s no wonder certain parents are looking for ways to minimize the risk. Removing your child’s phone may seem like the only solution, and while limiting screen time is certainly a positive step, Rome recommends alternative strategies that can be incorporated into your daily routine:

  • Be mindful of your child’s eating habits and make adjustments. For example, instead of allowing them to eat in front of their phone or the TV, make sure they only eat at the dinner or kitchen table and not while they are viewing a screen.
  • Learn when the binge usually occurs and change your traffic pattern. For example, if they want fast-food after school because they see it on the way home, take a different route.
  • Don’t deprive your child of a specific food; rather, learn how to portion it. For example, instead of buying a large bag of chips, buy the snack-pack version.
  • Create a mantra with your child that you can post on the fridge, the mirror, or even on their phone. For example, “One meal at a time, one step at a time-we got this.” Having your child create the mantra for themselves is even better.

Dr. Ellen Rome

“It’s important to remember that, in the same breath, we have the media telling our children to ‘Eat this now’ and social media telling them that ‘Skinny is better,'” says Rome. “This makes it so that their inner negative dialogue is shouting at them and their inner positive dialogue is whispering. The goal is to flip these.”

Such a goal appears to be key in preventing disordered eating attitudes from becoming hard-wired behavior. One way to help achieve this goal is communication: speak openly with your child, listen to their thoughts, and work to take positive steps forward together-as a team. And if your instincts tell you that a visit to your health care provider is warranted, set up an appointment. According to Rome, it’s never too early to speak about this with your doctor.

“If your child is checked and dismissed as healthy by your usual pediatrician but you still feel concerned, contact someone whose specialty is in disordered eating, such as an adolescent medicine physician or a registered pediatric dietician. Remember: There is never any harm in hearing a second opinion.”