The average age when eating disorders emerge is getting younger as the Butterfly Foundation reports a rise in helpline calls about children as young as 10.

The pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a sharp rise in eating disorders in the past year across all age groups but advocates are especially concerned about the increase among younger children, blaming image-based media on smartphones and bullying at school.

The news comes as the federal budget last week allocated funding for mental health, including $13 million to build a National Eating Disorder Research Centre and $8.25 million in other funding for treatment of eating disorders.

Mia Findlay said her dislike for her body started when she was just six years old. She started dieting at 10 and went on to develop anorexia.Credit:Edwina Pickles

Butterfly Foundation clinician and helpline team leader Amelia Trinick said children as young as 10 sometimes made contact directly, usually through the website, but there was a significant rise in calls from parents, carers and health workers with concerns about younger children.

Butterfly recorded a 13 per cent rise in calls about 10-14 year olds in the second half of 2020, after adjusting for the overall rise in calls. In the second half of 2019, 16 per cent of calls from parents, carers and health workers were on behalf of a child in the 10-14 age group. By the second half of 2020 this had risen to 18 per cent.

As a child and teenager Mia Findlay absorbed the message that her worth was tied to her appearance.

“What we’re seeing more and more is this move from parents talking about their young ones changing their eating habits based on anxiety to saying their young ones are changing their dietary behaviours based on things like bullying,” Ms Trinick said.

“We’re finding that as people are getting access to smart devices or social media accounts younger and younger, that type of conversation on the playground is becoming a lot more common.”

Helen Bird, manager of education services at Butterfly, said the requests from schools for sessions on body image and eating disorders had doubled this year, compared with the first half of 2019, especially in Victoria where the lockdown was longest and hardest.

When Korey Baruta was 10, a ballet teacher told her she could never be a dancer beause of her body shape. Credit:Joe Armao

Ms Bird said it was mainly high schools, though Butterfly did work with children from grade 5 and up, and primary schools were sharing some issues they were seeing with their students.

“Primary schools say that there is a lot of appearance-based teasing going on,” Ms Bird said. “Boys are maybe mentioning girls around their weight or their body hair or changes to do with puberty. We’ve also heard about one primary school where the girls were weighing themselves in the evening and texting and sharing their weights with each other.”

Journalist Madonna King, the author of Ten-Ager: What Your Daughter Needs You to Know about the Transition from Child to Teen, said 10 was the new start of adolescence and her research confirmed eating disorders, and also self harm, were emerging in younger and younger children.

King said it was now common for 10-year-olds to have a smartphone – especially after the pandemic lockdown – but they mostly did not have the critical thinking skills to see beyond the perfect images on the screens.

“If I had to tell you the most common two words from my research among 10-year-olds, it’s ‘fitting in’,” King said. “They tend to be tolerant of their friends but brutally judgmental about themselves.”

Seeing this photo of herself on a family holiday prompted Korey Baruta to feel intense dislike for her body, at just six years old.

Mia Findlay, 33, from Centennial Park in Sydney developed anorexia and bulimia at 19 but her body image issues started much younger.

She said that as a child she was a healthy weight but tall, and says she always felt uncomfortable when people made comments about her height or size. By the age of 10 this had developed into intense dissatisfaction and distress, and she started dieting – running every day on the treadmill, throwing out her lunches and becoming a very picky eater.

A defining moment came at age 15 when she went to the beach with her mother and some teenage boys started oinking at her and calling her a “pig” and a “Christmas ham”. When she lost weight, she was complimented by well-meaning people who didn’t know they were cheering on the early stages of her eating disorder.

Ms Findlay said that at age 10 she was influenced by her family and friends, but knew from her work as an advocate and educator that 10-year-olds today had additional pressures.

“Now they have access to Instagram where you have unqualified individuals posting dietary advice and what they eat in a day, which is pretty restrictive, and that’s just confusing them and influencing them negatively more and more,” she said.

Korey Baruta, 23, from Research in Melbourne remembers being dissatisfied with her body from the age of five, despite being a healthy weight. She did dance classes from the age of three to 18 and her body image issues were fuelled by the norms of the dance world.

“Being constantly in front of mirrors was like a breeding ground for self comparison,” she said. “When I was 10 years old I was told by one of my ballet teachers that I could never be a dancer with my body shape and this really rattled me.”

She developed anorexia in her late teens, culminating in hospitalisation, and has been recovered for three years.

Ms Baruta said she did not have social media when she was growing up but photos were common and seeing herself in group photos always triggered self-loathing.

Ms Baruta downloaded TikTok to entertain herself during the pandemic and soon noticed that many of the trends and viral videos were based around physical appearance and often glamorised restrictive eating and eating disorders. It landed in her feed without her asking for it, often popping up unexpectedly.

“I fear if someone was already restricting their diet, these social platforms have the ability to exacerbate this and ultimately lead to an eating disorder,” she said.

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