Online anorexia glorification hampering cure
Internet sites glorifying eating disorders are compounding what is a serious psychiatric problem.
Kate* weighed 40 kilograms when she was in her late teens.
She was battling anorexia nervosa, which left her suffering from anxiety and depression and her education scarred from prolonged absences.
Kate, now a University of Auckland student, has since recovered from her three-year struggle with the disease.
‘‘It takes over everything else,’’ she says. ‘‘Eventually there becomes very little else in your life that has that much power over you.’’
A common theme emerges from research, the work of practitioners and patients’ firsthand experiences. Eating disorders are powerful, addictive and destructive.
But if the internet and its ever-expanding blogosphere are thrown into the mix, what is the impact on these vulnerable individuals struggling to fight life-consuming diseases?
A quick Google search reveals eating disorders are increasingly being glorified online.
The range of content is varied, from entire websites dedicated to the promotion of anorexia and bulimia to personal blogs detailing people’s experiences.
Kate says she would use online calorie counters to achieve her aim of eating less each day and she also visited blogs which were blatantly pro-anorexia.
‘‘People would tell what they’d eaten that day and how guilty they felt. How they couldn’t believe they’d eaten a certain thing,’’ she says.
She says the websites also contained tips for patients on how to trick both family members and medical professionals into thinking they are eating.
Many websites incorporate all of these elements, as well as ‘‘thinspiration’’ – photos of desirable, skinny bodies. Some of the girls pictured seem healthy. Thin, but healthy.
Others have protruding collarbones and legs the size of arms.
Kate found the accessibility of this content a surprise.
But while those with eating disorders are accessing this content, so are those trying to help them recover.
Anorexia is the most fatal of all the psychiatric diseases per capita and pro-anorexia websites only worsen the problem, says Dr Charles Fishman, of the New Zealand Eating Disorder Specialists.
‘‘They’re terrible. They normalise a life-threatening disease,’’ he says.
Internet safety organisation NetSafe is often contacted by people who are concerned about what they find online.
Operations manager Lee Chisholm says it is usually parents who reach out to them for help.
‘‘Sometimes older people don’t really realise how much is on the internet and they get a bit of a shock.’’
Earlier this year blogging website Tumblr altered its user guidelines to ban content promoting eating disorders.
Blogs were deleted and bloggers were outraged. But many simply started anew and it only takes a quick Tumblr search of the tags ‘‘pro-ana’’, ‘‘pro-mia’’ or even just ‘‘skinny’’ to discover the website is struggling to control its own users.
Mrs Chisholm says there is no silver bullet when it comes to getting patients away from their keyboards, mice and favourite thinspiration blogs.
‘‘There’s so much access these days, it’s not viable to try and block something. People are determined to keep looking.’’
For Thrive Centre psychologist Bridgit BrethertonJones it is ‘‘a hard one to monitor’’. For her, the solution lies in finding out how patients feel about the websites.
‘‘We work hard not to tell clients what to do because it’s their recovery,’’ she says. ‘‘I think it’s really tricky when you say to someone ‘those sites are terrible and bad and don’t look at them’. It’s probably going to result in them looking.’’
Both Mrs Chisholm and Ms Bretherton-Jones believe the issue is not black and white as some websites offer support to people living an anorexic lifestyle, without encouraging them to continue.
‘‘That may be the only place where the person is getting any kind of understanding of what they’re dealing with,’’ Mrs Chisholm says.
‘‘Family can’t understand it, friends can’t understand it and everyone’s trying to make them eat.’’
Ms Bretherton-Jones echoes this outlook but says it is hard to define what content is actually helpful, because every website varies.
Kate says it is still hard to keep on track.
‘‘If I skip a meal I feel like the impulse is kicking in. You have to be quite disciplined.’’
One irrepressible fact emerges from Kate’s story, which is that anorexia is hard enough to deal with offline.
But when the internet gets involved, eating disorders have the potential to snowball to the point of no return.
Stick thin: ‘Thinspiration’ websites feature celebrities like Amanda Bynes to motivate people with eating disorders.
Don’t eat: An example of photos used on a thinspiration blog on Tumblr.