Surfing to Be Thin

Websites Lure Teens, Give Dangerous Advice on Anorexia, Bulimia

In a Facebook age where image is everything, vulnerable teens, especially girls, can be tempted by the lure of “thinspiration.”

Hundreds, maybe even more than a thousand, websites inspire people to embrace anorexia and bulimia as  a lifestyle. Called pro-ana or pro-mia (short for pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia) such sites offer dieting and purging tips, inspiring quotes, and photos (called thinspiration or thinspo) of models that range from naturally slim to starvation thin. While some parents are quick to dismiss the issue, studies show the sites are very seductive.

A University of Missouri study showed that girls who visited such sites even once reported lower self-esteem and were more likely to become obsessed with dieting and exercise.

A Stanford Medical study showed that of  those who visited pro-ana or pro-mia sites, 96% learned new weight loss or purging methods.

A plethora of blogs describe diets of 200 to 800 calories a day, and thousands of thinspiration videos appear on YouTube and other video sites to inspire the goal of being bone-protruding thin. One blogger writes, “Today I promised myself I was going to only eat around 400 calories for the skinny girl diet. Well, I didn’t eat anything all day, and I just forced down two pieces of dried toast so that brings the total up to 120 calories for the day.”

Some sites describe ways to hide anorexia from doctors and how to alleviate the effects of starvation, such as crumbling fingernails and hair falling out because of malnutrition.

When teens visit pro-ana websites, they may be exploring dieting, or worse, affirmation of a disorder with which they struggle. Today’s generation sees the Internet as part of their larger community, and how they use the Internet is a good indicator of issues they wrestle with in real life. In addition to often narcissistic social networking, teens are inundated online with a popular culture that worships a Hollywood view of beautiful.

Parents who stay informed about how their teen uses the Internet will be better armed to deal with issues their teens face, including such tough issues as anorexia and bulimia. Using reports that show how a teen uses the Internet can help a parent know the sites their kids are exploring, the interests and questions they have, and potential threats they encounter.

Here are five steps to help keep your kids safe, regardless of the issue:

  • Talk to your teens. Parents have the biggest influence on their kids’ behaviors, more than their friends, school, or religious institution. Put that influence to use. Set aside times to talk to your kids, but be prepared to talk to your teen on the fly when opportunities present themselves. Talking isn’t preaching, be willing to listen without interrupting.
  • Use software, like Covenant Eyes, to monitor how your teens use the Internet and don’t hide it. Covenant Eyes provides reports that rate web pages, such as T for Teen and M for Mature, similar to how movies and video games are rated. Use the reports to learn about your teen’s interests, curiosity, and their surfing habits.
  • Filters are helpful in blocking inappropriate content, but choose wisely. Some filters over block or they don’t block sites called anonymizers, which is one of the most common ways teens defeat filters.
  • Limit the amount of time and the times of day the Internet may be used. When kids are limited they use their time online more wisely, and are less likely to waste time searching out of boredom, which can lead to inappropriate browsing.
  • Do the basics. Keep computers in an open room. Don’t provide Internet access or Internet accessible devices in a teen’s bedroom. Use parental controls, and if a device doesn’t provide or allow parental controls to be downloaded, don’t buy it for them.

Finally, if you believe your teen is struggling with anorexia, bulimia, or some other disorder or addiction, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.  Ignoring an eating disorder is a recipe for disaster, and trying to overcome an eating disorder on one’s own can be futile and even dangerous to a person’s health.