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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Online eating-disorder communities

Eating disorder communities have been with us as long as there were eating disorders. When I was in high school, long before anyone but a handful of innovative researchers used the Internet, some of the cheerleaders would support each other while they binged and purged. The "community" was geographically limited. After the Web came along, ED became an "interest community" not restricted to any location. The same goes for "pro-Ana" (for anorexia) and "pro-Mia" (for bulimia) community in social-networking and blogging sites. It's one of the darksides of the social Web that are alerting us to and teaching us about the many age-old risks that at-risk youth take. Virtual eating-disorder communities are also a byproduct of "the [US's] moral panic about obesity," according to "No Wannarexics Allowed: An Analysis of Online Eating Disorder Communities," a study that's part of the MacArthur Foundation-funded Digital Youth Project (here's its home page at the University of California, Berkeley). "In the 1990s, eating disorders were the body issue of the moment but that spot has now been taken over by concerns about excess weight…. Sites for the pro-ana/mia/ednos communities have proliferated while, at the same time, a general cultural conversation about eating disorders has waned. Initially, many [Web site] servers took down pro-ana/mia sites, but, with the emergence of social-networking sites, they have reappeared." Even this brief synopsis of the study offers insights into these online communities (note the three numbered points at the end), "primarily populated by women under the age of 20," 56% of whom identify themselves as teenagers. See also my "Eating disorders & the social Web" last spring, including a backgrounder from Hannah, very caring friend of a college student who suffers from an eating disorder who contacted me about this to help get the word out.

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