Teens with eating disorders who visit those sites spend more time in the hospital and less time on schoolwork, say researchers from Stanford University, including medical student Jenny L. Wilson.
They presented their findings in Washington at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies.
Eating Disorders: Millions Affected, Severe Health Dangers
As many as 10 million women and 1 million men in the U.S. are affected by eating disorders anorexia and bulimia, and 25 million more people have binge-eating disorder, says the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA).
Eating disorders can be deadly, damaging psychological and physical health. The disorders are mainly seen in teens and young adults, and not just among women. Men account for about 10% of people with eating disorders who come to the attention of mental health professionals, says the NEDA.
Anorexia's self-starvation may prompt abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure (showing changes in heart muscle), osteoporosis, muscle loss, weakness, severe dehydration (possibly leading to kidney failure), fainting, fatigue, dry skin and hair, and hair loss, says the NEDA.
Pro-Eating Disorder Sites Outnumber Recovery Sites
Some web sites tout eating disorders as a "lifestyle choice," not a disease, say Wilson and colleagues. There are five times as many of those sites as there are web sites dedicated to recovery from eating disorders, says Wilson in a news release.
Pro-eating disorder web sites "are well-designed and alluring, often with a gateway emphasizing the danger of the site that can be attractive to teens," says Rebecka Peebles, MD, in the news release. Peebles, who worked on the study, specializes in adolescent medicine at California's Stanford and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.
In March, the NEDA released a poll of 1,500 U.S. adults about eating disorders. Almost all participants (96%) called eating disorders a "very serious illness," and 43% said they or someone they knew had had an eating disorder.
Eating Disorder Survey
Wilson's survey included 52 teens treated for eating disorders at Stanford's adolescent medicine division since 1997. The teens were about 17 years old, on average; 94% were female and half were currently in treatment for their eating disorder.
Four out of 10 teens said they had visited pro-eating disorder web sites. Thirty-four percent said they had visited sites emphasizing recovery from eating disorders. Almost one in four said they had visited both types of sites.
Risky Behaviors, Alarming Consequences
Many teens ventured farther down the wrong road after visiting pro-disorder sites, picking up new and potentially dangerous dieting practices online.
Of participants who visited pro-eating disorder sites, 61% said they used new weight loss or purging techniques as a result. In addition, 28% said they used new diet pills, supplements, or laxatives after visiting those sites, the study notes.
Fewer teens did so after viewing pro-recovery sites. New use of weight loss and purging techniques was reported by 29% of that group. New use of diet pills, supplements, or laxatives was mentioned by 24% of pro-recovery site users.
Teens who visited the pro-eating disorder web sites reported spending significantly more time in hospitals and less time on schoolwork and homework, says the survey.
Parents in the Dark?
The survey also included 77 parents of teens with eating disorders; 39 of them had children who also took the survey.
Wilson noticed a pattern among the parents of the teens who used pro-eating disorder web sites. Those parents were more likely to know about such web sites, to have talked about it with their kids, and to be concerned about what their children were learning online. Some parents had visited pro-eating disorder web sites for a firsthand look.
Help Is Available
It is possible to recover from an eating disorder, says the NEDA.
"If you are concerned that you or someone you love might be struggling with an eating disorder, it is imperative to get professional help," says the NEDA's web site.
Besides psychological counseling, medical help may also be needed to get started on the road back to health.