Anorexia Online Pro-Anorexia Websites Encourage Disease

In a recent study, researchers evaluated internet communications that support the pro-anorexia movement. They evaluated the messages that are exchanged between individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa. A completely new variety of support group has evolved online that supports anorexia as a lifestyle choice rather than a disease.  “Together, these findings suggest that pro-anorexia websites not only strengthen the connectivity of anorexic individuals who cannot find like-minded individuals in their offline community, but also inflate their self-worth through their online performance.”

The Internet has a vast support system where pro-anorexic individuals promote anorexia and encourage each other to be thin. These websites support the “anti-recovery” facet of disease, and discourage the view that anorexia is a stigma or a disease that has to be treated. Such new websites which promote harmful behaviors are called “Online Negative Enabling Support Groups (ONESG).” The general opinion regarding Anorexia is negative. Several studies showed that the general public sees anorexics as irrational and in denial of their condition. Pro-anorexic websites provide an opportunity for anorexics to interact, enabling them to cope with the stressful conditions of life.  Studies have shown that anorexics find more support from the online community where they can interact anonymously, rather than with their offline friends. Present study was conducted to analyze messages that were naturally occurring in pro-anorexia websites.

* Messages were collected from various pro-anorexia websites and blogs. These messages and data were collected over a period of six months – from October 2006 to May 2007.
* Collected data was analyzed by a process called “the constant comparison approach” and they were categorized into various groups.
* For each of these groups, unrestrained strategy and the types of online disclosures were identified.

* Most of the people who participated in anorexia-related discussions wished to hide their identity. Participants produced extreme pro-anorexic views and validated them among themselves. Very personal and intimate details were revealed by participants, resulting in individuals who preferred to interact online rather than face to face.
* Individuals stated, through their anonymous online identities, their commitment to anorexia by stating what they ate and how much they ate and then purged.
*  Self-loathing was commonly expressed and other participants did not correct or contradict those expressions. This encouraged a bond between all members of the group.
*  Participants advised each other on how to lose weight, hide their anorexia, take diuretics and purge after eating. Affectionate postings were common, encouraging other people to lose weight and stick to their anorexia-inspired way of life.

Shortcomings/Next steps
Information promoting anorexia is banned by major internet sites such as MySpace. They remove all messages related to anorexia periodically, and so it is difficult to follow pro-anorexia discussions. In addition, in the present study, the members of pro-anorexia websites were not contacted to get any more information. Of late, communications in the form of instant messaging and video chatting are commonly used. Future studies should take all these things into consideration to get more information on communication between anorexics.

The Internet has become an easy and popular media through which ONESG’s are being promoted. The anonymity offered by internet is utilized by pro-anorexia group members to create negative anonymous identities. These identities then encourage other personalities to express their emotions and provide information to support the unhealthy position toward anorexia. Understanding the communication strategy between the members of such groups may help in devising treatment strategies for psychological disorders like anorexia nervosa.  There is an urgent need to curb ONESG’s which encourage unhealthy behavior and an “anti-recovery” view. This study also highlights the need for social and emotional support for the treatment of psychological disorders such as anorexia.

For More Information:
Communicating Thin: A Grounded Model of Online Negative Enabling Support Groups in the Pro-Anorexia Movement
Publication Journal: New Media and Society, October 2010
By Stephen M. Haas; Meghan E. Irr; From the University of Cincinnati, Ohio and University of Pittsburgh, PA

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.