New figures suggest an explosion of eating disorders among children since the pandemic, with three in four teenage girls suffering from possible problems.
Experts said the generation growing up in the shadow of Covid-19 was increasingly scarred by “fear, anxiety and disruption”, which was now being shown in a host of mental health disorders.
Overall, one in six children aged between six and 19 were found to be suffering from a probable mental disorder.
The figure, which compares with one in nine in 2017, showed no improvement on last year, with experts warning that the damage being suffered by children during repeated lockdowns appeared to be sustained.
The findings, which come from national research, tracking 2,541 children and young people since 2017, suggest that the disruption of recent years has had a devastating impact.
More than half of children aged 11- to 16-years-old felt that life had got worse as a result of Covid-19 restrictions.
In the survey, children were questioned about a range of topics, including loneliness, sleeping habits and eating problems.
In total, 76 per cent of girls aged 17 to 19 were found to “have a possible eating problem” – up from 61 per cent in 2017. Among boys the same age, the figure was 41 per cent, up from 30 per cent in 2017.
Difficulties with food
Children were found to have difficulties with food depending on responses to a number of questions on the topic.
Experts stressed that a “possible eating problem” did not necessarily equate to a disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.
But they said such concerning changes reflected increases in the numbers seeking help for such conditions and should be taken “extremely seriously”.
The number of children and young people waiting for treatment for eating disorders has quadrupled in the last year, NHS figures show.
The new study also showed more than half of 11- to 16-year-olds reported that they spend more time on social media than they meant to.
Effects of social media
Some 17 per cent also admitted the amount of interactions, such as likes, comments and shares their posts receive, impacted on their mood.
Tom Quinn, from Beat, the charity for eating disorders, said: “‘The effects of the pandemic on children and young people with an eating disorder, or vulnerable to one, cannot be underestimated.
“The behaviours and thinking patterns assessed in the survey, such as concerns about eating interfering with their life, or believing themselves to be at a higher weight, are often an early indicator of an eating disorder and should be taken extremely seriously.
“It is of the utmost importance that anyone experiencing these behaviours is assessed and treated at the very earliest opportunity before they have the chance to manifest into something even more serious.”
Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “These shocking figures show the true scale of the mental health crisis facing the NHS in England.
“Chronically underfunded NHS services now face being overwhelmed in the near future given the damage being done to children’s mental health after 18 months of fear, anxiety and disruption to their formative years.”