Teenage girl at school looking sad

Eating Disorders in Independent Schools: How to Notice the Tell-Tale Signs

Hospital admissions for eating disorders in children and young people reached their highest point last year.

Eating disorders can have a major impact on a student’s well-being and academic achievement. When schools are in loco parentis, it is crucial that they are able to spot the signs of students with a problem. This can be challenging. Digital technology can identify concerns in students as they emerge and can help schools to act quickly to take action as soon as possible.

As children grow, experience of body changes such as body shape, skin, increased hormones, heightened emotions and mood swings are all very common. It is hard for teachers to be able to spot which symptoms are simply part of growing upand those which may indicate a serious problem. Staff are unlikely to notice the eating habits of students and identify a problem until it has been long established and has potentially reached a critical level.

From students starving themselves to students obsessed with the gym and protein shakes, appearance is everything in the eyes of some and they are prepared to go to extremes, unable to look at their bodies rationally. With conventional television being replaced by YouTube and pupils idolising influencers and celebrities, children’s minds can be greatly skewed in the way their body should look and the types of activities that are normal.

Eating disorders have always been a concern amongst children. As they grow from child into a teenager, pupils are at their most vulnerable to feel that they need to be accepted, and for some the way they look will be at the forefront of their minds. But a change that has been rapidly growing in the last few years is the amount of access to the internet and the way the online environment has become a platform of fuel. Unlimited content such as ideas for extreme dieting and competitive messaging sites for those who can lose the most weight or gain the most muscle is all easily accessible.

Social media also plays a big part in how images which are finely crafted to make bodies look unrealistically perfect are hostedaccessed and shared online, with the Government issuing many warnings that they must do more to remove such harmful content.

The online space can also lead to cyber-bullying including doctored imagery and hate comments about the way teenagers look. This kind of online abuse can be a root cause of children turning to eating disorders as their confidence and self-esteem become affected.

With so many contributory factors caused by the online space, it is important that schools monitor individual online activity effectively. With many students spending time on digital devices during their free periods and while in their boarding houses, a solution that monitors for types of activity that may signal a child at risk is imperative.

Digital monitoring can identify problems like eating disorders. It can detect if student accesses inappropriate material or types any content showing significant risk. An effective solution will not record all digital activity. It will capture any incidents that identifies a child at risk of harm. When a capture is made, an alert is raised to the school’s Designated Safeguarding Lead to inform them of the activity and associated riskStudent’s may not feel confident enough to talk to other students or teachers about their feelings and experiences and so will turn to the internet for help. This is where digital monitoring plays a crucial role.

Effective filtering is also an important aspect of keeping students safe from content that may trigger or further encourage an eating disorder. It provides schools with the ability to block websites it identifies as showing risksuch as ‘thinspiration’ sites which encourage children to lose weight and hide their extremes from others.

Parents entrust their children into the care of school staff during term time. They will expect schools to be able to effectively identify if their children have a problem. Digital monitoring and filtering are both essential methods for early detection and protection against harm 

For further information on how to review and improve your schools online safety infrastructure, read our whitepaper, Achieving online safety excellence in the independent school environment. A best practice guide for school leaders and DSLs. 

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