Eating disorders amp up with technology

Feb 22, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. ET

The bounty of diet and exercise information at our fingertips gives endless options for living a healthy lifestyle, but for kids and teens struggling with eating issues, technology can trigger rigid behavior that fuels extreme dieting and exercise.

February 24 - March 2 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The theme this year is "everybody knows somebody." As a parent, it's so important to know what's happening in our kids' lives, particularly when it comes to their health and wellness. Have you considered the ways that technology could contribute to unhealthy eating habits and eating disorders?

Tech triggers

Though not a clinical term, eTriggers is a shortened way of referring to electronic- or technology-based activities that could potentially trigger someone to engage in dieting, exercise or disordered eating behaviors, says Ovidio Bermudez, M.D., the medical director of child and adolescent services at Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado.

Kids and teens may use game consoles, computers, tablets and phones to study diet and exercise techniques. For example, calorie-counting smart phone or tablet apps that manage calorie intake or exercise-focused video games that measure current weight and calories burned. Healthy when used in moderation, but when taken too far, they can enable damaging behaviors.

In addition, there's a myriad of websites, such as pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia websites or forums, that offer harmful tips to help children and adolescents learn and practice disordered eating behaviors, Dr. Bermudez adds. It's important to recognize that these activities do not "cause" eating disorders. Eating disorders are complex, heritable diseases that involve bio-psycho-social factors, says Dr. Bermudez. "These triggers can simply kick-start one behavior that may be taken to an extreme, and they can serve as enablers for unhealthy food- or exercise-focused behaviors that have already begun."

Learn about Pro-Ana and Thinspo for children >>

They want to be the best

Through websites, phone apps, games and social media forums, technology can trigger or enable an eating disorder. "An important part of the mindset of individuals struggling with eating disorders is a desire to learn 'how to do it better' and how to compete with others," says Dr. Bermudez. "Both of these can be cemented by accessing information related to losing weight."

Plus, they compare themselves to other people with eating disorders and motivate themselves to "do it better" by learning new ways to drop weight and bond with others around their successes or failures in eating disorders behaviors.

What you need to know

  • It's not just kids genetically predisposed to eating disorders who have to worry about the dangers of e-Triggers. Any kid can get lured in.
  • Be aware of the technology your kids have access to and the amount of time they spend using it on school days and weekends.
  • Keep an open dialogue with your children about healthy habits and technology.
  • Parents are ultimately responsible for monitoring the appropriateness of their kids' screen use.


Technology isn't bad for children or adolescents, but if it's used to foster an unhealthy weight, for example, it can be harmful.

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