Eating Disorders and Technology: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Eating Disorders and Technology: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are notoriously difficult to treat, with technology’s speed and reach both complicating treatment and offering solutions.

A Difficult Problem, Complicated by the Internet

Eating disorders are among the most commonly diagnosed mental illnesses, with an estimated 24 million Americans suffering from anorexia, bulimia and other problematic eating behavior. Treatment of these illnesses can be particularly difficult, especially since the disorders feature a complex intersection of psychological, social and genetic factors.

More people die young from eating disorders than any other mental illness, and the problem is not getting better, especially since those afflicted often turn to online communities to fuel their destructive behavior.

Eating disorders predate modern technology, but the communication revolution sparked by the rapid growth of Internet use and mobile technology have profoundly changed the way people experience and come to grips with this self-harming behavior.

A number of innovative apps and programs using smartphone technology and social media to offer support systems for people struggling with eating disorders, but technology continues to serve as a platform for triggering images, videos, conversations and impossible comparisons reinforcing the illness, and people dealing with eating disorders may want to tread carefully when surfing the Web and using their smartphones.

Problem Sites Create Toxic Community

Sites and forums devoted to encouraging eating disorders have a long history on the Internet, with today’s sufferers taking advantage of inventions like Tumblr, Facebook and Pinterest to fuel their destructive behavior.

Even back when most people used AOL and Compuserve dial-up service, communities that egged on harmful behavior flourished. People with eating disorders used the Internet to validate their behavior and form quasi-support groups that actually approved of destructive behavior.

These “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) and “pro-mia” (pro-bulimia) groups posted “thinspiration” or “thinspo” photos, videos and tips, sometimes competing against each other to achieve the ideal body weight. The practice so alarmed French lawmakers that in 2008 they outlawed posting “thinspo” images and comments trying to curb the growing movement.

In 2002, the New York Times ran an article highlighting pro-eating disorder online communities, and figured the number of community members ranged in the thousands. People with eating disorders often felt pressure from friends and families to work toward changing their anorexic and bulimic behavior, but online, they found a community that shared and celebrated their unhealthy pursuits.

Now, the numbers have likely grown considerably. The rise of social media sites like Facebook exacerbates the problem, because people struggling with eating disorders have a constant source of images to compare themselves with, and the communities are thriving. Facebook has since prohibited pro-ana and thinspiration forums, but people still report feeling lowered self-esteem after visiting the site because of the ample opportunities to compare themselves to others.

Sites like Tumblr and Instagram, which are often visually-focused and allow more anonymity than Facebook, receive postings of dangerous images, often hash tagged with #thinspo. British fashion plate Alexa Chung recently came under fire for posting a photo to her personal Instagram account that some users thought glamorized anorexia, though the TV personality denied the claims. The incident illustrates how pictures of thin women, even those put online for benevolent reasons, are sometimes hijacked and used to promote unhealthy body images.

Following the onslaught of media attention, both Tumblr and Instagram recently changed their policies to try to curb this behavior, but it is unlikely it will die out completely, since pro-anorexia bloggers have already migrated to the image-based social media site du jour, Pinterest.

Though Pinterest took action and changed its policy as well, problematic images continue to circulate, there and across the web.

Twitter is another modern bastion for pro-eating disordered groups, and accounts like “Thinspo Quotes” and “Thinspiration” have thousands of followers, often checking the feed on their mobile phones for encouragement on the go.

How It’s Helping

Despite the parasitic pro-ana community’s wide reach, mobile technology and the Internet do not need to be the bane of an eating disorder patient’s existence. Just as the Web allows problematic communities to flourish, it also provides a wealth of forums for people looking for help.

There are smartphone apps designed to help people find treatment, including a popular entry, started by a recovered patient, Christine Hartline. She explained the benefits of technology for eating disorders, saying, “This is the resource I wish I had when I was struggling with an eating disorder — years ago there was no place to find and compare treatment options.”

Another helpful app, Recovery Record, encourages people with eating disorders to eat healthy amounts of food and set positive daily goals for themselves. Started by PhD student Jenna Tregarthen, the app recently received acclaim from The Butterfly Foundation, a major charity, for its ability to connect with young people.

Beyond phone apps, genuine support groups are available at all hours on the Internet, providing people who need to talk to someone immediately a place to go. The anonymity provided by computer-based support groups appeals to many eating disorder patients, who associate their conditions with feelings of shame.

No Easy Solution

People struggling with eating disorders suffer from being cut off from their social circles, so limiting their Internet use is unwise, although recognizing the potential dangers isn’t. Anorexics, bulimics, and people with other eating disorders may want to set up blocks on “thinspo” content and make a conscious effort to take advantage of the support groups and apps available due to new technology.

Also, as more therapists wisely incorporate the positive aspects of Internet and mobile phone use into their therapies, those who suffer have more online options for help.

The Internet isn’t inherently good or bad, and although it allows harmful groups space to flourish, it also gives helpful communities and treatment services an opportunity to reach out to people in need. The problem is, people who struggle with disordered eating may not want to cure it, and until they decide to seek positive help, the astounding, pernicious presence of the pro-eating disorder community on social networking sites may offer too potent a temptation.

There is no easy answer or quick fix for eating disorders, but a service providing a way to block pro-disordered content would prove invaluable to people struggling with the problem. Until then, technology will remain a double-edged sword for people with eating disorders.

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