TEENAGE girls in mixed schools are more likely to be dissatisfied with their body shape than those in single sex education, according to a new study.
Dr Fiona McNicholas, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in the Lucena Clinic in Dublin, also told an international conference in Dublin that the drive for thinness was higher in girls who were educated at post primary level with boys.
Dr McNicholas said the findings emerged in the Eating Problems In Children and Adolescents (EPICA) study of over 3,000 teenagers aged 12 to 19.
The majority of students across all the schools felt popular, happy and perceived themselves to have a good quality of life, she told delegates at the International Congress of the European Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
“Despite this 32pc of girls dieted and 29.4pc were dissatisfied with their bodies,” she said.
“Adolescents who were “always on a diet’ reported a lower quality of life.
“They saw themselves as less popular and less academically able than those who never dieted. Irish girls were also more likely to have symptoms of bulimia, the eating disorder which involves throwing up food to try to keep body weight down.
She said: “More than a quarter of adolescents felt that the media portrayal of shape and weight was far too thin.
“Greater maturity was associated with higher eating concerns and this was particularly noticeable in early-maturing girls.
“In contrast, late-maturing boys had more eating concerns and more bulimic symptoms and more dissatisfaction with their bodies than on-time peers.”
She said eating disorders are on the rise and up to 1pc can suffer from anorexia with 2pc suffering from bulimia.
Up to 5pc of adolescent girls could have a mix of symptoms which include behaviour associated with anorexia and bulimia.
Early recognition of eating disorders is essential to try to stop the problem becoming more serious.
Niamh McNamara of the UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science said that the stigma around eating disorders can act as a barrier to receiving effective support and treatment.
“Many people with eating disorders may feel quite isolated and unable to approach family members and professionals,” she said.
She added: “Attention has increasingly focused on the potential of online support groups to effectively reach out to young people in distress. Online support groups are a medium through which participants can reveal their personal struggles and avail of the support which they may sometimes feel is lacking in their public lives while still maintaining a degrees of anonymity.”
However, she pointed out that it is important that research is conducted on the online support services that young people are accessing to ensure that these are effective and safe services, especially for those who feel they have no other supports available to them.