David Earl Johnson, LICSW

5 minute read

Here is a heads up for parents of kids vulnerable to eating disorders. There is a growing support network on the Internet to help young girls “improve” on their eating disorders. Connecting with others feels supportive, especially those who are like minded. But in fact, the “Pro-Ana” (Pro-Anorexia) groups encourage unhealthy behavior and feed the preoccupation with being thin and losing weight. About 15% of those diagnosed with Anorexia die from complications of starvation.

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“A 2006 study that she coauthored found that 96 percent of teens diagnosed with eating disorders who visited pro-eating disorder Web sites learned new dieting and purging techniques, and almost 50 percent of teens who visited sites ostensibly devoted to eating disorder recovery also learned new weight-loss tips. [..]Facebook doesn’t track how often it deletes pro-ana (pro-anorexia ) pages, but the groups violate the site’s terms of use by promoting self-harm or harm to others. A team of Facebook employees actively searches for and deletes pro-ana groups along with groups promoting everything from bigotry to self-mutilation, according to company spokesman Barry Schnitt. In response to increased scrutiny and criticism, many pro-ana groups are now private and can’t be found in a search, and still others omit the term “pro-ana” from their titles. Most of the anti-pro-ana groups try to warn people away from pages that promote anorexia and educate them about alternatives, says Angela Ross, 19, who has recovered from an eating disorder and created the 1,400-member Stop Pro-Ana page. Ross says she discovered pro-ana sites one day while feeling depressed about her weight and surfing the Web. The sites, she says, fueled her fledgling eating disorder. Similarly, a 15-year-old high school student in Philadelphia happened upon the pro-ana community while flipping through Facebook. “I was looking through groups and I found [a pro-ana group],” she says. “I was like, ‘Wow, these girls kind of know what I’m saying.’” Now, using a different account, she’s joined dozens of the groups and downloaded Facebook applications that allow her to share thinspiration pictures with friends. She spends about 45 minutes on her pro-ana account every day, although some of her friends will stay online for as much as five hours daily, posting in groups and chatting with other pro-ana Facebookers, she says. Marcia Herrin, a Dartmouth professor who has written several books on eating disorders, finds the public nature of the discussions of anorexia on Facebook encouraging, because it shows that teens are less afraid of confronting eating disorders. “To me, that illustrates or indicates that teens these days are so wise,” she says. “They’ve seen so much, they know so much, compared to when I was a teenager in the ’60s, that not all of them are wrapped up in eating disorders. Girls are concerned about other girls in their social group who they see toying with an eating disorder. They may talk to them directly, they may talk to a school counselor, they may talk to the girls’ parents.” Rose actually hoped some of her friends would see the groups she was joining and talk to her about them. “I wanted one of my close friends to see it and rescue me,” she says. But unfortunately, no one did. At one point, she was so involved in the Facebook pro-ana community that she started her own group in defense of it; eventually she deleted that group and stopped posting in others. She couldn’t get over her guilt at “helping someone kill themselves” by supporting them in their fasting, and she realized that the groups weren’t truly helping her. “Even though the pro-ana sites provided a way for me to communicate with people, it wasn’t real-life connections and it wasn’t real friendships,” she says. “It was us telling people, ‘Oh, stay strong.’ I was not getting better. I was venting the frustrations. I just wanted to talk to people with similar experiences; they really didn’t help at all.” Rose says she has since recovered from anorexia and she rarely visits pro-ana Facebook groups. When she does, she says, she’s mostly relieved to no longer be part of that world.” Rose sums it up pretty well. The pressure we all feel inside ourselves often attributed to “anxiety” or “depression” is in fact the motivation to act or change. When a person with eating disorders finds reassurance and support for their unhealthy habits, their motivation to change is used up in the social exchange. On-line relationships are complicated even more so by the fact that they aren’t anywhere as meaningful or rewarding as “real life” relationships. They give a satisfying feel of intimacy, but there is no way of assuring yourself that what you see on the screen is the real person. In fact there is good reason to believe that much of what we see in on-line social networks is a highly superficial if not completely false presentation of the real person. But the on-line’s relationships are satisfying enough to divert a persons energy from more productive pursuits.

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