Dangers of Pro-Anorexia Websites
"Of the 10 million victims of eating disorders in the U.S. today, eight percent are young people under the age of 20," says Abigail Natenshon, MA, LCSW, a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders and the author of When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder from Highland Park, Ill. "Three to five percent of young teens suffer from eating disorders."
What Is Anorexia Nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa, as stated by experts, is the most lethal of all mental health disorders. Characterized by an abnormal fear of obesity and distorted body image that leads to abnormal eating patterns, anorexia is marked by obsessive fasting. The serious effects of this disorder include everything from mild weight loss to heart problems. If left untreated, anorexia can be fatal.
"Anorexia is a disease involving food restriction and weight loss that affects the cognitive mind, the emotional self as well as the physical body," says Natenshon. "Anorexia is a misuse of food to resolve emotional problems that involves the pathological fear of becoming fat."
Misuse of the Web
Currently, an alarming number of pro-anorexia Web sites are popping up on the Internet. Despite a recent ban by several of the larger search engines, there has still been a steady onslaught of sites continuing to surface on the Internet. These sites are extremely harmful to impressionable young people, often promoting anorexia as a lifestyle rather than a serious disease.
"I have known many young women through my practice who have been influenced by pro-anorexic sites to engage in purging behaviors in the interest of losing weight," says Natenshon. "These behaviors have led to dangerous eating disorders. These sites provide girls with a place to feel validated and rewarded for their self-abusive behavior."
Natenshon says that the Web sites offer young girls a sense of community and acceptance. These pro-anorexic sites feed the onset of eating disorders and often act as a catalyst in strengthening their victims' commitment to remaining fixed in the actions that contribute to this serious illness.
It is often a search for help that brings young people to these sites – reaching out for support, information and a sense of connection. What they are finding when they surf these sites are things like dieting tips, online journals and various types of dangerous competitions that feed the disease instead of support recovery. There have been reports of newsgroups and discussion boards online that encourage girls to fast and offer tips on how to achieve the results that can prove deadly.
While various sites claim to provide a healthy environment for support, many of the sites posted dangerous messages of advice that could help anorexics become even more informed on ways to improve on their skills. Some go as far as to offer tips to visitors on ways to hide their disease.
It's not just the tips and message boards that are threatening; visitors to these sites are bombarded with gruesome images of ultra-thin models, some of which have been altered for maximum effect. The immediate reaction for most visitors is to be repelled at first by the images of waif-thin women, but there follows a morbid fascination. At the click of a mouse, young girls are reading things like, "Thou shalt not eat without feeling guilty" and "Be yourself. It's OK to be obsessed." The messages are clear and ultimately life threatening for young girls suffering from anorexia nervosa or other serious eating disorders.
Promoting Unhealthy Practices
"I don't believe the sites can trigger anorexia in just anyone," says Angela Butera Dickson, a recovered anorexic from Sanford, Maine. "It isn't a decision you just wake up with one day. It is an issue of control, and you gradually get into more and more control over your food as you lose control over the other aspects of your life. The sites promote the practice of the disease by making it seem like normal or acceptable behavior."
Dickson feels that young people, both girls and boys, are searching for a place to go to be accepted – a place where their behavior can be validated and perceived as normal. Many of these sites provide just that sort of haven for them.
For Helen Henderson, a recovering anorexic from Alberta, Canada, these sites are a blatant reminder of how deadly the disease can be. "For girls on the edge, these Web sites can be very, very dangerous," she says. "If you visit on a regular basis, you can start to feel like you belong to an elite club – especially since, by nature, anorexia is a lonely disorder. It becomes a competition of sorts – who can be thinner? Being the thinnest translates into being the best, and anorexics want to be the best at being anorexic at all costs."
Parents Are the Best Defense
"Parents need to watch for signs of troubling influences," says Natenshon. "Kids may begin to diet or restrict certain food groups. They may worry about becoming fat even when they are thin or become preoccupied with calorie counting."
Natenshon says parents should be on alert if they notice their child makes excuses not to eat meals together with the family, disappears into the bathroom after eating or refuses to go places where they are required to eat.
"Parents need to send the right messages to their children, telling them that the best way to be thin and stay thin is to eat healthy, nutritious foods," reminds Natenshon. "Kids should understand that there are no bad foods, as long as food is eaten in moderation. If a youngster needs to lose weight, the best way to go about doing so is to eat differently – not less. It's important to remember that childhood diets can be the precursor to adult obesity."
Parents need to be aware of what Internet sites their children are visiting. There are many computer programs available that have the capacity to block out offensive Web sites.
Natenshon has created two Web sites designed specifically for parents and children who are dealing with the emotional and the physical challenges of an eating disorder. These Web sites are a wholesome alternative to the dangerous pro-anorexic Web sites and an invaluable resource for parents and children.