A new report highlights the risks posed by so-called pro-anorexia websites. Sheena Grant reports

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RUBY was a teenager with an eating disorder, looking for some online support, when she instead stumbled across a website that hooked her into a “toxic environment” of competitive dieting.

The website was one of hundreds of pro-anorexia – or pro-ana – sites that have proliferated on the internet.

They vary in content but most promote the idea that anorexia is a lifestyle choice rather than a life-threatening medical disorder. Many feature blogs and forums where users engage in competitive weight loss, share “thinspirational” images and diets of as little as 400 calories a day (less than a quarter of the amount recommended for women).

The risks posed by websites such as the one Ruby was using are the subject of a recently-published research study, called Virtually Anorexic – Where’s the Harm? by Dr Emma Bond, senior lecturer in childhood and youth studies at University Campus Suffolk.

On one of the websites Dr Bond looked at the author advocated her own diet: minimal food, lots of water and diet soda, plenty of cigarettes, coffee and diet pills.

Another diary-based blog described weight gain following some weeks “at home” over Christmas. Back at college, the blogger wrote that she was going to undertake a three-day fast to “regain control”. Within two hours the blogger had 36 followers declaring they would fast for three days in support. Ruby* knew the website she was using daily wasn’t helping her but she just couldn’t stop herself from logging on.

She only quit when it vanished from the internet without warning.

The Essex teenager started suffering from depression and anxiety when she was just 11 years old and two years later developed body dysmorphia (a mental health condition related to body image). When she was 16 she was the victim of a sexual assault and soon afterwards developed anorexia.

Now 19 and in recovery she – like Dr Bond – is keen to raise awareness of the dangers of the hundreds of pro-ana sites still online and visited by more than 500,000 people a year, some of primary school age.

“I was looking for resources about eating disorders but instead of getting a website that could help me I found a pro-ana site at the top of an online search list,” says Ruby.

“I went on to it and was initially disturbed by the whole thing. I found it disgusting. But I started talking online to other site users. It was a very toxic environment, with an element of competition and sharing certain diets and people trying to motivate each other to lose weight.

“It added to my own behaviour. I really noticed a difference between when I was on the site and after it closed down. These sites keep you in the same place and stop you moving on.

“Some of the sites are moderated to make sure nothing is going up that could be triggering for an anorexic but on the one I was using there was no moderation. When you are using them you feel it is a good thing and that you are getting support from people who understand you. It is only when you leave that you realise how damaging they are.

“It would be better if there were more support networks out there that people could use that were not so toxic. If people had access to such places they might not end up using these pro-ana sites. You come to the point where you are ready to recover but that site was swinging me in the opposite direction.”

There are estimated to be up to 500 pro-anorexia websites in existence. Dr Bond examined 126 for her study and found they promoted a disordered view of perfection in relation to body image which normalises an ultra-thin appearance. Young people with low self-esteem or lacking self-confidence are especially vulnerable.

Her report quotes an EU Kids online study which found that 10% of nine to 16-year-olds had visited a pro-anorexia website.

Most site users are female but they are also accessed by boys and young men.

A significant number of sites are actually created by girls under 18 years old. Many of the “thinspiration” pictures on the sites feature celebrities such as Keira Knightly and Victoria Beckham that are not dissimilar to the images contained in high street fashion magazines and there is evidence that it doesn’t take much exposure to pro-anorexia websites to encourage significant changes in calorie consumption.

“Not only is anorexia viewed as a lifestyle choice but those who embrace it are praised for the desirable qualities involved in being a ‘successful’ anorexic: control over oneself, self-discipline and the denial of pleasure and nourishment,” says Dr Bond.

“For those who already have an eating disorder the risks are going to be far greater. We know young people are visiting these sites out of curiosity or because they think it’s ‘cool’ to do so. Many of them don’t understand what anorexia is. It has been sensationalised in much of the media and promoted in celebrity culture.

“Pro-anorexia websites are diverse by nature. Some have harmful content while others are more about people with an eating disorder offering each other support. There are many different types of site and user. One of the findings (of the report) that was really significant was that a lot of the time people are going to these sites because they lack support offline. They feel misunderstood and isolated in their real lives.

“Anorexics often have an ambivalent attitude towards eating disorders. They want recovery but if you’ve spent a lot of time on these sites, building up friendships that are important to you, it can be hard.”

She believes the study shows the importance of educating children and young people about developing a critical eye when viewing internet content.

“Sites which are illegal do need to be closed down but many of them are not illegal. What is important is raising awareness and encouraging young people to think about what is on these sites.

“For instance, how does anyone know that what they are looking at is true? Images online can be digitally altered very easily to make people appear thinner than they are.

“Once an image is up-loaded it will quickly proliferate elsewhere and you see a repetition of some images across hundreds of sites. The celebrity ones may have come straight out of glossy magazines and are put up for inspiration. The ones the girls upload of themselves are more emaciated and show their distorted perception of body image.

“The more time people spend on these sites the more extreme behaviours become normalised. It changes how users perceive normal body images.”

The uploading of images of themselves exposes girls to another risk, and many young women have reported being targeted for “skinny porn”. Porn agency websites reportedly sign up new clients and advertise images, films and escort-type services for those “hooked on skinnies”.

“Because these girls have poor self-esteem, somebody finding them attractive is quite attractive to them and they can end up putting themselves in dangerous situations by responding to people who contact them online.”

As internet access is so readily available on phones nowadays, the old advice to parents about ensuring computers are in family rooms doesn’t always work when it comes to protecting young people from harmful web content – another reason why education around internet use is so important, says Dr Bond.

“It is difficult to raise awareness of the dangers of these sites without inadvertently attracting attention to them but we do need to get young people thinking critically about harmful content online. I hope the report will help encourage young people to behave more responsibly online and take responsibility for themselves.

It’s also important for families and those who have loved ones with an eating disorder to maintain communication and offer support.”

* Name changed to protect identity

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