Effective communication serves to influence social norms, beliefs and behaviours, and is key to bringing about change.
Key communication strategies should contribute to the reduction of risk factors for eating disorders by assisting in the development of resilience and help seeking behaviour, and by working to eliminate the negative stigma currently associated with eating disorders.
Strategies and key messages
Effective and strategic communication uses a variety of means. Research shows that messages are more effective, better understood and more motivating when:
They are consistent across different channels and platforms
They are communicated via a variety of channels/platforms, rather than only one or two
Key messages and communications about eating disorders should:
Be developmentally appropriate for the intended audience and their age
Promote understanding of eating disorders as serious, complex illnesses, not a lifestyle choice
Provide accurate, evidence-based information
Assist people in making appropriate decisions about seeking help
Balance representation of males and females, diverse cultures and age groups (unless specifically addressing a single target audience)
Be reviewed for ambiguity and possible risk of harm
Be monitored and evaluated on an ongoing basis to ensure the continuing safety and appropriateness of content
Key messages and communications about eating disorders should not:
Describe details of how to engage in eating disorder behaviours
Use or provide information on personal measurements in relation to people who have experienced an eating disorder (e.g. weight, amount of exercise, number of hospital admissions)
Normalise or glamorise eating disorder behaviours
Stigmatise eating disorder behaviours
Use judgmental, critical or value-laden language
Use fear, stigma or other ‘scare tactics’ to motivate or coerce people to act
Communicating with young people
Puberty is a time of great change biologically, physically and psychologically. Teenagers are often vulnerable to societal pressures and can feel insecure and self-conscious. These are factors that can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. Subsequently, adolescents and their peers are a key audience for communication efforts.
Research shows that adolescents are confused about eating disorders. Young people recognise that eating disorders are potentially harmful; however, they also accept ‘body obsession’ and dieting as normal parts of growing up.
In order to communicate effectively with young people, the avenues taken must be appropriate to what is known about the way teenagers receive, absorb, accept and respond to information.
Messages for young people should:
Emphasise positive behaviours for good health
Seek to build self-esteem and self-determination
Target the need for perfectionism and the internalisation of the thin ideal or body thinness
Include media literacy
- For more info on how to promote positive body image, click here
EatingDisordersInfo is an online tool developed by the NEDC to communicate about eating disorders with young people. This resource has been designed to be relevant and engaging to young people who are either at risk of, or experiencing an eating disorder, or who want to access online resources to help a friend or family member.
This resource can be incorporated into many different training contexts, from media literacy programs and other school curriculum by teachers, to mental health community workshops or pastoral care programs. You can explore it by visiting: http://eatingdisordersinfo.org.au.
Communicating with families
Parents and extended family members are instrumental in providing early education on health, achievement and wellbeing. Families serve as role models and can, often inadvertently, place pressure on children and young people to achieve unrealistic physical or ‘body image’ standards.
However, with appropriate education and training, parents and families can support their children by reinforcing appropriate messages they are hearing from school programs and other programs. Similarly, families can contradict inappropriate messages their children receive through media channels, such as magazines, films and television programs.
When communicating about eating disorders to families and parents, the following should be noted:
Messages for families, carers and friends
Parents and families require messages that assist to identify symptoms and encourage help-seeking
Key messages need to explain the facts about eating disorders and provide information on access to treatment and support
Support should be given to parents and families so they can promote good eating habits and a positive body image; parents and carers can often have negative body images themselves and require support for their own needs and their needs as role models
Messages should also enhance recognition of risks
Parents should provide guidance and teach their children about healthy eating patterns and they often require the right information to do so
Communicating with schools and related institutions
Educational institutions play a large and ongoing role in the influence of young people. They are, therefore, instrumental in delivering positive messaging about body image, healthy eating and exercise behaviours.
Schools can be engaged through: media literacy programs, the compulsory inclusion of relevant content in the curriculum, contact with medical professionals and professional development days.
Related institutions that have been identified as target audiences include dance schools, gyms and sporting clubs. While some junior sports (i.e. soccer and netball) are run through these associations, many sports are also run and organised by volunteers, which can include parents. This can make it more challenging to access and engage these networks.
Appropriate messaging should be customised to target these audience groups in order to ensure effective delivery of messages and to provide the right information and support to make sure that these messages are clearly received.
Further information for educational institutions:
Download the NEDC professional resource for teachers and schools - Eating Disorders in Schools: Prevention, Early Intervention and Response
Download the NEDC professional resource for sport and fitness professionals - Eating Disorders in Sport and Fitness: Prevention, Early Intervention and Response
Find school resources and programs
Communicating with health professionals
Frontline health professionals frequently reflect the dominant ideas of their society. For this reason, we require clear, positive and open messages that are focused on these health professionals and their various roles in managing and treating eating disorders.
Without this clear communication, general practitioners and other health professionals can unintentionally promote misconceptions about eating disorders, which can directly impact the responses and explanations a person with an eating disorder may receive when presenting for help.
This may lead to failure or delay in diagnosing and treating the eating disorder. Subsequently, this can also cause distress and shame to the person who is seeking help. Information and education for frontline professionals is an important approach if we are to enable the prevention and early intervention of eating disorders.
Further information for health professionals:
Find current programs and resources available for frontline professionals working in the community;
Find current programs and resources available for people working in the sport and fitness sector.
Preventing Eating Disorders
Best practice communication and targeted programs are key to helping prevent the development of eating disorders and reduce stigma and ignorance. Find out more about primary prevention, secondary prevention, prevention programs and media literacy.
Do No Harm
Care must be taken in promoting information about eating disorders in order to ensure positive outcomes, rather than accidental harm. Research indicates that without due caution, highlighting the symptoms or effects of eating disorders may increase the prevalence of the disorder.
Eating disorders are often misunderstood and underestimated in our society, resulting in the use of inaccurate reporting and language with a potentially negative impact.