Do social networking sites support pro-anorexia groups?

April 11th, 2007 by JenniZ

Counselors have known for a long time that eating disorders are a real threat facing high schoolers (especially females) and that victims of eating disorders sometimes look to their peers in ‘support’ or ‘motivation’ for their unhealthy habits. In the early 2000s, pro-anorexia (or pro-ana) sites cropped up all over the Internet, providing an outlet of motivation, tips and tricks to fuel their disorders. These sites were soon banned, but some people are concerned that the rise in social networking sites like facebook.com and myspace.com may provide a new outlet for pro-ana groups. Kristi Eaton explores this issue in Current magazine for Newsweek.

“When I was sick, I went to extreme measures to keep my anorexia a secret. Nobody knew that I would do jumping jacks in the bathroom to burn extra calories. Or that I would drink gallons of water just before I was weighed to inflate the number on the scale and fool the nurses at the rehabilitation center. Or that I threw away my brown bag lunch every single day.

Throughout three hospitalizations, therapy sessions and mental breakdowns, nobody – not even my therapists or peers in our race for perfection – was privy to my tricks.

But anorexia is a disease that affects one to two percent of females in the United States isn’t the hidden behavior it used to be. The Internet has connected thousands of anorexics and has enabled them to share every detail of their ana (a nickname for the disorder) experience with anyone who will read it. Once among the fastest-growing topics on the web, pro-ana websites have decreased in numbers since 2001, when large domains like Yahoo! Began shutting many of them down. But sites like MySpace.com, facebook.com and LiveJournal.com have helped bring the networks back, allowing women to announce their latest calorie cut or celebrate another pound lost. And the threat has evolved. Through daily communication via post, note and message, the newer sites offer participants personal, round-the-clock cheerleading throughout the process of depriving their bodies.

There are more than 100 communities on LiveJournal and about 10 MySpace groups that list pro-anorexia as an interest. Facebook groups including S4P I need perfection and **Pro-Ana** promote anorexia, sharing slogans like Hunger is only a feeling and NOTHING tastes as good as being THIN feels.

At the same time, many of the high school and college girls who have started MySpace groups said they were hoping primarily to find other anorexics so they could share their experiences and support.

“Girls are going to suffer, so they may as well have an outlet for their thoughts,” says Nicole, a 19-year-old student at Wilfred Laurier University who has struggled with anorexia for five years. When she started Underweight Goddesses on MySpace in April 2001, she chose to make the group private so that people had to be approved before they could become members and post messages. But anyone can see the group’s posts.

“I wanted to make a group where members were screened to be sure they actually would be able to contribute to the group because they were suffering,” Nicole says. “Having random people join and claim they have an [eating disorder] or that they want to have one is very inconsiderate,”she says.

To become a member of the group, girls must have a Body Mass Index less than 18, she says. A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal weight. A BMI of less than 18.5 is underweight. Nicole, who has undergone both group and inpatient therapy, argues that anorexia is not a lifestyle choice, but a chronic disease. She also says that her group and others like it are not meant to glamorize anorexia, but rather to offer support to girls battling it.

“I am well aware that it can be negative for girls to strive to belong to a group with such unhealthy issues,” she says. “But I also know that suffering alone is torture. I would never want to promote it, but rather to bring awareness of daily struggles and the life a sufferer leads.”

She tries to steer the group away from tips that might trigger someone to become anorexic, but admits that it isn’t always possible. Photos of thin women and pictures tracking Hilary Duff’s weight loss appear on the group’s profile.

Information on the effects these groups might have on girls vulnerable to but not yet victims of anorexia is inconclusive. Simply reading about diets and looking at pictures of celebrities like Nicole Richie for “thinspiration,” is not necessarily indication of an emerging eating disorder. Someone who suffers from anorexia has deeper underlying psychological issues than just being thin. The disease goes beyond weight. For anorexics, there is a sense of emptiness within, which they believe can only be cured by starvation.

But as might be expected, and as researcher Anna Bardone-Cone discovered, viewing these sites does produce a negative emotional state. Bardone-Cone, an assistant professor of psychological Science at the University of Missouri, looked at the impact of pro-ana sites on 24 women, ages 18 to 20. The study, published in the July issue of European Eating Disorders Review, randomly assigned the participants to view one of three sites: a typical pro-ana website, a fashion website featuring average-sized models and a home decor site.

Before the women viewed the webpages, Bardone-Cone and her team measured several psychological factors, including mood, self-esteem and how participants viewed their weight. The factors were remeasured after viewing.

The study found that women who viewed the pro-anorexia site experienced negative changes in mood, lower self-esteem and feelings of being overweight. Those who viewed the other sites exhibited little psychological change.

Eight years after my last jumping jack in the bathroom, scanning these posts and pictures online affects me, but in a different way. I cannot help but understand the urge to create a community of sufferers, despite the potentially harmful consequences of these sites. But I also feel a sense of relief that there is now no way the stories of calorie counting and marathon exercise sessions or the pictures of emaciated models can hurt me.”

You can view the article in it’s original format here.

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