In some of the darkest corners of the Internet lurk websites that actually promote eating disorders.
On pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia sites, users offer each other tips on how to lose weight.
On pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia sites, users offer each other tips on how to lose weight. iStockphoto.com
Users post pictures of gaunt celebrities to motivate each other to strive for emaciation, calling it "thinspiration." They offer tips on how to lose weight and how to hide the disease from loved ones. Some even personify anorexia and bulimia as supreme beings Ana and Mia — goddesses meant to be worshiped and pleased.
A new study, published in the June 17 edition of the American Journal of Public Health, analyzes 180 of these sites, represents the most comprehensive survey of the phenomenon to date. Researchers found that most of the sites had interactive features and were more sophisticated in cultivating user communities than such sites were in their earlier days.
"It's important to know what's out there — especially in this ever-changing media environment," says the study’s lead author Dina L.G. Borzekowski, who researches the influence of media on children's health at Johns Hopkins University.
Earlier studies have found sites like these could hurt young peoples' self esteem, quality of life and prolong the duration of eating disorders.
Of the sites Borzekowski's team evaluated, 79 percent were interactive. These sites let users communicate with each other or use weight-loss tools, such as body mass index calculators.
Community is an important aspect of these sites, Borzekowski says. "I think one of the issues for people who are suffering from these disorders is that they feel extremely isolated — that there are few people who they can speak to about what they're thinking and what they're doing," she says.
And these sites are making it easier for eating disorder sufferers to congregate. When these websites started showing up in the late 1990s, they didn't have some of the capabilities they do now.
"They're much more interactive," Borzekowski says. Some websites allow users to post not only comments but also artwork, poetry and even video files.
Borzekowski says her research is only a snapshot of what's out there and that the landscape keeps changing. Now, people are using Twitter and other social networking sites to promote disease, she says.
The paper concludes that "attempts could be made to regulate pro-eating disorder sites," while acknowledging abundant challenges to doing so.