Study: online communities encourage eating disorders

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Social networking is the most common reason young people use the Internet. Increasingly, that social interaction is happening on websites devoted to eating disorders.

According to a new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Stanford University School of Medicine, the Web is rife with so-called pro-ana and pro-mia (for pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia, respectively) sites that encourage, support and motivate users to pursue their eating disorders.

Most of these sites are open to the public without a password, and most contain “thinspiration” — photos of emaciated fashion models and celebrities, for example — along with tips and techniques for staying dangerously thin. Most sites also allow user interaction through forums and message boards or through diet- and exercise-related tools, like body-mass index calculators and activity diaries.

Previous research has suggested that visiting pro-eating disorder websites tends to increase teeanagers’ levels of body dissatisfaction, lower their quality of life and prolong their disordered eating behaviors. It’s possible also that young people who have not yet developed an eating disorder could be persuaded to adopt unhealthy behaviors after learning about them or discussing them with peers online, the study authors suggest.

The community aspect of pro-eating disorder websites is potentially their most seductive element, according to the study. Coupled with images of thinspiration, the sites’ constant social support can be powerful encouragement for extreme behaviors, especially in young people whose eating disorders cause them shame and social isolation in their everyday lives. Online, where users share artwork and poetry, they are accepted. “On these websites, striving to be underweight is deemed not only as normative but a signal of success,” the authors write.

The study, which will be published in the June 17 edition of the American Journal of Public Health, is the largest and most rigorous examination of pro-eating disorder websites to date. Researchers systematically analyzed the content of 180 pro-ana and pro-mia websites found through Google and Yahoo searches, and judged the sites on their potential for harm. Of the sites studied, 84% had pro-anorexia content and 63% had pro-bulimia content; 83% offered specific tips and techniques for maintaining an eating disorder, including purging, using laxatives and hiding the disorder from friends and family.

Interestingly, 38% of sites also contained information about recovery or links to other recovery resources online. It’s possible that “sites containing positive messages of recovery alongside thinspiration and techniques could entice a larger demographic to this online world,” the study notes.

And about one-third had specific warning messages directed at “wannabes” — visitors who might be trying to develop an eating disorder, or just lose weight — telling them they are not welcome and instructing them to go elsewhere.