June 23, 2010

Eating-Disorders + Web = Bad Combo

Websites that hype eating disorders are too common these days. Even worse, they're often aimed at kids.

A new study of the pro-eating disorder online world, often geared toward young people, provides an intimate and disturbing look into the phenomenon, which is more widespread than one might imagine. These websites, which the authors write, “describe, endorse, and support eating disorders,” are known as pro-Ana (pro-anorexia) and pro-Mia (pro-bulimia) sites, and provide a variety of “tips” on how to purge and fast.

Almost half of the sites (49%) were mostly images and graphics and written at less than an 8th grade reading level, which suggests that many of these websites are targeting very young kids.

Dina Borzekowski and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health wanted a comprehensive look at the information that is being presented on these sites, and to understand the types of messages that readers are getting when frequenting them. The team looked at 180 of the most popular websites, based on the top results from two major search engines.

Borzekowski and her team found that of the sites visited, 84% had pro-Ana content and 63% had pro-Mia content. Only 31% of the sites offered pro-recovery information. Many of the websites offered a combination of types of information (i.e., providing both types of information: pro-eating disorder as well as pro-recovery). About 40% of the websites offered a disclaimer that the site’s content might be “dangerous or distressing,” the authors write; and of these, about 42% of the sites said they were not responsible for any resulting effects or changes in behavior.

The types of messages put forth were disturbing. Some sites boasted that they were not for “wannabes” who hoped to develop an eating disorder. Many sites (85%) offered “thinspiration”, “images or prose intended to inspire weight loss.” About 83% had “tips and techniques” for maintaining eating disorders, either in a specific section or scattered throughout the site. And 43% offered advice on how to conceal the disorder from other people.

The authors say that some sites “had a written creed or oath to Ana or ‘thin commandments’”; and many of the sites offered an area for “artistic expression,” which was mostly in the form of poetry. Interestingly, the authors point out that the “thin commandments” had originally been written by a recognized specialist in eating disorders as “a tool to help parents better understand their daughters with anorexia.” But they had been changed somewhat and, clearly, taken out of context by the pro-eating disorder community.

Another disturbing finding was that almost half of the sites (49%) were mostly images and graphics and written at less than an 8th grade reading level, which suggests that many of these websites are targeting very young kids. The authors write that given the prevalence of these sites, “pro–eating disorder community has the potential to be extremely harmful.” They also point out that the technology is always changing – and other reports have suggested that the social networking has already been incorporated into many of the pro-eating disorder websites, which could have even more serious effects on the community.

It’s extremely important for parents to be aware of what their kids are looking at on the internet, and to talk to your kids whenever possible about the information out there, as well as healthy eating and healthy living.

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