Eating Disorders and the Internet
The Today Show exposes websites that encourage dangerous eating disorder behaviors
This video includes 4 recovered women discussing the harm caused by visiting websites that inspire deadly restricting and purging behaviors. Eating disorders are not a choice! A person trapped by the cycle of behaviors, often keeps most of their thoughts, activities, and fears carefully hidden. During this isolation people succumb to the need to feel like they are part of a community, even if it is an online community – that is when these websites are the most toxic.
Pro-Ana, Pro-Mia and Pro-ED Sites
When the internet took off in the late 1990s, all sorts of online groups began to develop. Some of these groups became known as Pro-Ana, Pro-Mia and Pro-ED, which are short for Pro-Anorexia, Pro-Bulimia and Pro-Eating Disorders. These terms are used to describe online communities where eating disorder behaviors and attitudes are encouraged. On these sites, users are instructed and motivated to lose weight to be part of an “elite,” though hazardous, online community. Some initially appear friendly and benign. However, they can pose a serious threat to some individuals, not simply because they promote eating disorder behaviors, but because they build a sense of community that is unhealthy. They lure the impressionable and persuade them that the Pro-Ana community is providing caring and nurturing advice.
Now Pro-Ana content appears in far more places and in more diverse formats – such as blogs and social networking sites. It’s also increasingly more difficult to detect Pro-Ana sites. Many are disguised as positive sites where people help each other lose weight together. They come together under the banner of “thinspiration,” dispensing tips and tricks to lose weight. Some begin innocently enough but quickly descend into full-fledged Pro-Ana. In June 2010, researchers from Johns Hopkins studied the content of 180 sites they discovered while searching for terms like “Pro-Anorexia” and “thin and support.” 83% of the sites they viewed contained suggestions for engaging in eating disorder behaviors1. A minority provided information on recovery, but also encouraged eating disorder behaviors. Contradicting information like this may influence innocent and impressionable site users, like children, adolescents and those who already feel isolated.
Whether they are overtly pro-ana or subtly thinspirational, even the slightest exposure to these sites may be harmful to those at risk. A study published in European Eating Disorders Review exposed healthy college girls with no history of eating disorders to 1.5 hours of pro-ED sites and they showed decreased caloric intake the week following their exposure. Some participants admitted using techniques and tips they viewed on the sites and had “strong emotional reactions” up to three weeks after the study2.
Characteristics of Pro-Ana, Pro-Mia and Pro-ED Sites
- Glamorize/idolize images of emaciated or very thin individuals
- Imply food and weight are the enemy
- Encourage and teach dangerous eating disorder behaviors
- Promote thinness at any cost, deny seriousness of illness
- Insist that eating disorders are choices, rather than an illness
- Attempt to mask toxicity by being exclusive and elite
Keeping Children Safe
Most Internet guidelines for parents about internet safety are written from the point of view of protecting the child from pornography or child predators. Some of the general guidelines make equally good sense for protecting children from pro eating disorder sites. These suggestions include:
1. Purchase good monitoring software that will enable you to block certain websites and track any website that has been visited.
2. Keep your child’s computer in a public room of your home so you can indiscreetly monitor activities when you pass by the computer work station.
3. Set age appropriate rules and guidelines for computer use with your child.
- Discuss these rules with children and put a copy near the computer as a reminder.
- A child or teenager’s excessive use of online services or bulletin boards, especially late at night, may be a clue that there might be a hidden problem.
4. Pay attention to the people your children are chatting with online.
1 Borzekowski, D.L.G., S. Schenk, J.L. Wilson, R. Peebles. 2010. e-Ana and e-Mia: A content analysis of pro-eating disorder web sites. American Journal of Public Health. 100: 1526-1534.
2 Jett, S., D.J. LaPorte, J. Wanchisn. 2010. Impact of exposure to pro-eating disorder websites on eating behaviour in college women. European Eating Disorders Review.