Eating disorders are soaring with almost 20,000 people a year being admitted to NHS hospitals, amid concern that social media is fuelling a growing crisis.
Children below the age of nine are among those being sent for in-patient treatment, the official figures show, with a sharp rise also seen among pre-teens.
Experts warned that social media is driving a rise in such disorders, with the proliferation of deadly forums promoting anorexia, and messages advocating “clean eating” and the pursuit of the perfect body.
Last night Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was “appalled” by the easy access children had to websites and forums promoting lethal lifestyles, as he pledged to take action to protect those growing up in a digital world.
The new NHS statistics for England show a 37 per cent rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders in just two years.
There were 19,040 admissions for eating disorders among all age groups in 2018/19, up from 13,885 in 2016/17, the NHS Digital figures show.
Last year’s figures include 4,471 admissions for eating disorders in children aged 18 and under, up eight per cent in a year.
The majority of such admissions were for anorexia, including 16 cases in boys and girls aged nine and under – up from six cases the year before. There were a further 186 admissions for anorexia in girls aged 10 to 12 in 2018/19, and 27 for boys aged 10 to 12.
Mr Hancock said: “I’ve been appalled at how easy it has been for young people to access online content that promotes eating disorders.
“Social media companies have a duty of care to their users, and we are clear that they must do more to remove this content and keep children safe.”
“We are developing legislation to improve internet safety and make sure that the UK is the safest place in the world to be online.”
Claire Murdoch, national mental health director for the NHS said the health service was investing heavily in services to treat eating disorders, with nearly 100 new or improved services set up in recent years.
But she said children’s mental health was being damaged by “massive pressures about body image, fuelled through social media”.
She expressed particular concern about advertisers promoting damaging diet products, and young people swapping online tips about high risk ways to lose weight.
“It’s clear that while the NHS is ramping up services through our long-term plan, the dangerous drivers of mental ill-health need to be cracked down on by the rest of society,” said Ms Murdoch.
Tom Quinn, from eating disorders charity Beat, urged social media platforms to take action now to ensure that content promoting conditions such as anorexia cannot be posted.
Instagram has already banned images of self-harm following the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell in 2017, who took her own life after viewing such content.
Mr Quinn said:“Some content on social media can be very harmful for people suffering from an eating disorder. So-called pro-ana and pro-mia content helps perpetuate the illnesses for people who are already suffering, and is widespread and easily accessible online.”
“We strongly encourage social media platforms to do more to ensure such content cannot be posted, in the same way as they are now cracking down on images of self-harm.”
Dr Agnes Ayton, chairwoman of the faculty of eating disorders psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Rising hospital admissions for eating disorders are very worrying as they are the deadliest mental health disorders.
“Healthcare professionals need to be better trained at spotting eating disorders as early diagnosis and treatment can reduce hospital admissions and saves lives.
“Patients often face long delays in accessing specialist treatment, so the Government must ensure eating disorder services are properly staffed to help bring waiting times down and reduce the need for hospitalisation.”
The college’s own census found that one in six posts for psychiatrists working in the field remains unfilled, she said.
Emma Thomas, chief executive of the charity Young Minds, said the figures were “worrying”.
She said: “Getting early support for an eating disorder can prevent problems from escalating, meaning young people are more likely to fully recover.
“Getting early support for an eating disorder can prevent problems from escalating, meaning young people are more likely to fully recover.
“The Government must make prevention and early intervention a priority for every child struggling with their mental health, to ensure that they get help as soon as they need it.”