Pro-Anorexia Web Sites: The Thin Web Line
Are these web sites fueling an epidemic?
First Study of Anorexia Sites continued...
Did those who spent time on "pro-ana" sites have more health
problems, or more difficulty in recovery, than those who didn't? Yes and no.
Although respondents who visited the sites reported spending less time on
school work and more time in the hospital, in terms of many other health
measures, they seemed no different than the other respondents. Factors included
their weight compared with their ideal body weight, the duration of the eating
disorder, their number of missed periods, and whether or not they appeared to
be developing osteoporosis.
"They didn't necessarily seem to have a 'sicker' health profile, which
surprised us," says Wilson. "Now, there are a lot of things that make
someone sicker beyond just their weight or how many times they were in the
hospital, but it's very interesting that the basic health outcomes didn't show
an enormous difference." She and Wilson want to follow up their initial
study with a larger, prospective study that may help them understand their
initial findings better.
"We as providers worry that these sites are harmful, and of course we
feel that they must be. We counsel teens to not use them, and I think we
probably need to know more accurately just what kind of effect they have,"
Peebles says. "There are so many battles that we have to fight when we
treat a patient with anorexia or bulimia who's an adolescent, we deserve to
know if they're truly harmful or just shocking. If it really doesn't have an
effect on their outcomes, there are other things to invest time in."
Anorexia Sites Offer Lessons to Be Learned
While it's far too soon to come to that kind of conclusion, Peebles notes
that there are things that parents and health professionals can learn about
young people's needs from the "pro-ana" sites.
"It appears that there is a subset of patients who are particularly
curious and vulnerable to web sites. They're really seeking information about
their illness, really questioning," she says. "How can we address that
need for information in a way that's more positive?"
It's not easy. There are a number of good pro-recovery sites, Peebles
observes. One of the best-known and most popular is www.somethingfishy.org. But
even such sites can be misused to encourage unhealthy behaviors.
"No matter how positive we try to be in our portrayal of information,
when you have an eating disorder, you have a very distorted world view and hear
what you're interested in hearing," Peebles says.
If, for example, a bulimic in recovery posts the story of how she used to
make herself throw up by using a toothbrush, an adolescent with bulimia will
likely skip the paragraphs about how horrible the experience was and simply
walk away with a new tool for purging.