A new study shows the number of websites promoting eating disorders is on the rise.
These so called “pro ana”, “pro-mia” and “pro-ed” sites often encourage sufferers and offer tips for losing weight. The sites also provide an accepting place where people with an ED can get encouragement and inspiration to further their eating disorder.
While an accepting and encouraging community is great in most circumstances, these online forums provide dangerous advice that is both physically and mentally damaging. This can range from tips on suppressing appetite and avoiding food to posting pictures of overly skinny women as inspiration or goals.
These sites started appearing in the early 90s but recently, their numbers have undergone more dramatic growth. Emma Bond, a researcher from University Campus Suffolk conducted the study and examined 126 pro-ED websites. She found the number of forums and blogs on these sites was on the rise.
Her report noted, "In order to understand the risk, it is essential to understand how people with eating disorders seek and strive for perfection. Their idea of perfection is based on a desire for thinness and this disordered viewpoint becomes normalised through the viewing of images and engaging with other eating disordered people in online environments.”
The more people with an eating disorder like anorexia visit these sites, the more extreme images and information they see. Eventually, underweight becomes their new normal as they except the ideas of extreme diets and ultra-skinny models as the standard of beauty.
People who frequent pro-eating disorder sites also often push each other to greater extremes. According to the report, "The online spaces can be competitive and further encourage harmful behaviours. Cyberbullying is frequent and users are sometimes targeted for pornography but it is the feeling of belonging to and identifying with the group that reinforces an eating disordered self-identity, especially as people with an eating disorder are often isolated and stigmatised in the offline world."
The websites also offer some very troubling services. Some sites will match people suffering with an eating disorder up with a “buddy” these two people then encourage each other to lose more weight. Some sites also provide dangerous low calorie diets that provide as little as a few hundred calories a day. Sites even had provide dangerous advice like encouraging smoking or telling visitors, “being thin is more important than being healthy.”
Many of these sites are created by people with their own eating disorder who are looking for support. Bond said she believes it is important we educated young people about the dangers of these sites.
"Eating disorders are not going away, if anything they are becoming more common. We need to alert people to the dangers of harmful content on the internet. Everyone needs to understand better the risks online and the harm that eating disorders can do to young people," Bond said.