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A call to action on eating disorder sites

Britain’s Royal College of Psychiatrists called for “urgent action” to protect online youth vulnerable to pro-eating-disorder Web sites, the BBC reports. It says the number of such sites has “soared with the growth of social networking,” and the government’s year-old Child Internet Safety Council should expand its definition of harmful sites to include those promoting anorexia (pro-ana) and bulimia (pro-mia). The BBC cited one eating-disorder charity as saying it welcomes the Royal College’s position but banning pro-ED sites doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

The other issue is that social networking complicates the issue. Not only is this not just about Web sites but profiles and pages in social sites and on mobile phone networks, and all of the above based in other countries. Further complexity is evident in the pages, profiles, and sites themselves, which display both pro and con positions at the same time. In a story about the migration from secret sites to social-network ones, Newsweek cites the view of Dr. Steven Crawford at the Center for Eating Disorders in Baltimore, who “sees the openness of the Facebook site as part of its appeal. Increasing numbers of teenage patients at the center are joining Facebook groups that proclaim their disorders to the world, which Crawford believes is a means of adolescent rebellion.” Dartmouth Prof. Marcia Herrin, author of several books on the subject, “finds the public nature of the discussions of anorexia on Facebook encouraging, because it shows that teens are less afraid of confronting eating disorders,” Newsweek adds. Facebook says it actively searches for and deletes pro-ED groups because, in supporting self-harm, they violate its terms of use.

This past June, Liz Jones, a columnist for the Daily Mail in the UK, wrote about her 40-year battle with anorexia and a normal-eating experiment she conducted for three weeks. It’s just one person’s story but maybe sheds some light: “I found the gnawing, tight knot that is always in my stomach – fear of life, work, boys, social interaction – was quietened when I starved it…. I might not have been good at anything else – relationships, sport, conversation – but I have been really good at being thin…. That’s the thing about being a borderline anorexic: it makes you feel superior, clean, morally unimpeachable. It isn’t a whole lot of fun, endlessly disappointing friends who invite you for lunch. My spartan lifestyle … has kept me tiny, but it has also isolated me…. I’d rather be thin than happy or healthy.” [See also my 2007 interview with “Hannah” about her anorexic friend and “Sarah’s Death at 19 Left Her Family Struggling to Understand the Power of an Eating Disorder” in the Washington Post last spring.]

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