Teens Health: Web Sites That Promote Eating Disorders
Parents beware: Cyberspace is teeming with websites, chat rooms, and file-sharing programs that encourage teenagers to think of anorexia and bulimia as glamorous lifestyle choices. These "pro-Ana" and "pro-Mia" sitesalong with well-intentioned sites that promote recovery from eating disordershave been linked by Stanford University researchers with a tendency to engage in the deadly behavior.
The researchers surveyed 76 patients with eating disorders and their parents at a California children's hospital and found that among those who visited websites advocating eating disorders, 96 percent learned new weight-loss or purging methods and 69 percent tried them as a result. (Pro-Ana and pro-Mia sites, though they vary considerably, usually include galleries of gaunt women as "thinspiration," dieting and purging tips, and forums.) In addition, patients who used the websites spent less time on schoolwork, had more hospitalizations, and had more difficulty curbing their eating disorders than those who didn't. Half of the parents either didn't know whether their kids visited the websites or thought they didn't.
"It's important not to panic, but it is also important to be an active, informed observer of what your kids do online, and to use your judgment about how closely to monitor their usage, especially in young kids," says Rebecka Peebles, an eating disorder specialist and author of the study.
The pro-disorder sites have spawned considerable outrage. Some groups, such as the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), have lobbied Web hosts to voluntarily block the sites, and some major hosts now police their content for such sites and remove them. However, many pro-disorder sites have simply migrated to other Web servers that don't police content and onto social networking sites. Parry Aftab, a lawyer specializing in cyber law, says there is little that can be done legally to shut the sites down. "I'm afraid we have to resort to old-fashioned education of kids," she said. She works with pro-recovery sites to make them more prominent on search engines and also trains teens to speak out to their peers about the dangers lurking online. Peebles agrees that banning websites outright isn't a solution; the effort might make them even more appealing. She also thinks there might be something to learn from the urge among lonely, troubled teens to find company on these sites. "Since so many people are reaching out on these sites, I can't just dismiss all of them," she says. "There is extraordinarily poor coverage of mental disorders by insurance companies. I worry there might be something that we're not offering in the real world."