On­line anorexia glo­ri­fi­ca­tion ham­per­ing cure

In­ter­net sites glo­ri­fy­ing eat­ing dis­or­ders are com­pound­ing what is a se­ri­ous psy­chi­atric prob­lem.

Central Leader - - NEWS -

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.

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