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March 2, 2007

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Eating disorders & the social Web

Hannah (not her real name), a 4th-year student at Hampshire College, recently posted in our forum about social-networking sufferers of eating disorders (EDs). She'd been surfing the social sites, concerned about a long-time friend of hers, "Cora," who had "relapsed" (started extreme dieting again). Part of her was hoping she wouldn't find Cora in one of the ED "support" communities. She didn't, but...

"I was looking around on Xanga and came across a bunch of girls who support each other in starving themselves to become thinner," she wrote, referring to "pro-ana" (for anorexia), "pro-mia" (for bulimia) communities on the Web. "One of my friends has been battling with this for years now - since she was the same age as [the girls in Xanga] and has serious health consequences. These girls are in a dangerous situation and are causing serious harm to themselves. Is there any place that could help or anything that someone could do? I don't know who these girls are, but I'm worried about their health."

An estimated .5-1% of adolescent and adult women are anorexic and 1-2% are bulimic, Newsweek reports, and they have been seeking and receiving support on the Web (to both continue and stop EDs' self-destructive behavior) since long before social networking came along. But - as with all types of interest communities - on Web 2.0, the networking and validation-seeking is both more convenient and more exposed. This is both bad and good, respectively. Anorexics and bulimics can find way too much harmful reinforcement, but the exposure means (some) sufferers are hiding less and getting help, and the people who love them (and healthcare professionals) can understand better how to help. All this brings new meaning to the term "online safety" - the public discussion about young people's well-being online and on phones needs to broaden.

This interview with Hannah sheds light on a topic she feels we all need to know more about and how it works on the social Web....

NetFamilyNews: What got you into searching social sites for ED communities?

Hannah: I've been worried about [Cora] finding these sites that encourage the anorexia, so I tend to watch them a little bit to make sure she doesn't pop up on the lists. I've been scared to ask her if she visits them because I'm not sure if she knows about them. My other friends are also staying away from the topic because we don't want her to check them out and fall back into anorexia again [by finding encouragement from other anorexics in these communities - see Hannah's backstory on Cora and their group of friends].

NFN: I'd like to get more of your thinking about the role of social-networking sites in this community (both pro-ED and pro-healing). You see both sides on the social Web, right? Could you give examples of what you're seeing on both sides?

Hannah: Well, the pro-ana/mia side encourages one another to either fast or go on low-calorie diets, generally under 500 [calories a day]. They are all very supportive of one another. When someone has what they would call a "good day," with low calorie intake, you'll see responses to the post offering congratulations. They pass on dangerous ideas and ways to not eat. The support that is given is negative and reinforces the feelings of those suffering from an ED.

For the encouragement of healing, Pro-Ana Nation is an excellent site. The individual in charge of it does not support the spread of unhealthy tips but rather seeks to help provide an understanding of the disorder. There [sufferers] can find support from others. One of the problems of anorexia and bulimia is that it's easy to fall under it again. People in these communities understand this and the reason why this occurs.... Having a friend who has gone through it, I know I'll never fully understand.

NFN: What do you think the social sites can do to 1) help to keep sufferers from getting the wrong kind of reinforcement and 2) help educate sufferers to get help?

Hannah: This is a hard question. There is a lot of danger to whatever actions they can take. I think that for groups of [Web] journals on this topic, creators of pro-ana groups need to be required to, in the group description, talk about the dangers of the ED and state that dangerous dieting tips should not be shared.

There should also be grounds for expulsion from the group. The sharing of unhealthy dieting tips should be among them. And perhaps there should be a limit, if any should be allowed, of thinspo pictures [short for "thinsporation," these are photos of bone-thin women which anorexics use for inspiration to keep trying to get thinner]. Potentially, this could make these organizations more supportive of each other, whether toward healing or toward at least stopping these individuals from inflicting further harm on themselves. I would like to see some place where an individual who is becoming very ill from her behavior can be reported about and have her journal sent to someone to evaluate. The problem, here, is that the [reporting person] needs to want to help. If too many lines are crossed, the individual will probably just feel violated and shamed.

NFN: Do you think there's an upside to the social-networking-site "outlet" for these girls? If so, what?

Hannah: Yes, it provides them with others who understand what they are going through. They don't feel so isolated and crazy. Generally people's reactions tend to seem harsh [to sufferers]. In a normal high school situation, when someone says they're fat, there is generally the answer that they're not because someone else in the group is bigger. It's hard for friends outside the disorder to understand. Here they can connect with follow sufferers who understand and can provide help other than saying to just eat.

Related links

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Web News Briefs
  1. Parents, be aware of

    Keep in mind as you read this that every new Mac has a built-in Webcam, and Webcams are otherwise very easy to buy, use, and conceal from parental detection. Stickam is a site parents probably don't want to find in their kids' browser History or Bookmarks. It's "a year-old social-networking service that urges members to connect with others via live Webcams and instant chat," CNET reports. MySpace doesn't allow Webcams or even links outward to Stickam for security purposes. That's not to say there isn't good stuff going on in Stickam (CNET mentions live video chat with musicians and video feeds from the Sundance Film Festival), but the problem is it's just about impossible to enforce rules like a minimum age (14) or no obscenity where live video's concerned. An investigative reporter researching Stickam recently told me a group of people can be chatting about a completely innocuous topic, when someone can spontaneously join in nude on camera and start "performing" - though a Stickam executive told CNET the site's "trying to overcome these problems by developing technology to block inappropriate behavior, and by keeping a team of staff that monitors video feeds, alongside warning flags from members." CNET adds that the site has about 40 staff to deal with all the above. It has 400,000 registered users and is "adding between 3,000 and 4,000 members a month," mostly 14-to-25-year-olds, the site says.

  2. Safety for teen gadget-resellers

    Their ranks are growing - teenagers selling their electronic gadgets on eBay, craigslist, or MySpace because they need the money to get the latest model, the New York Times reports. "Part of the reason is that households with teenagers typically have 35 consumer electronic products, on average, compared with 24 products at homes with no teenagers." Parents need to know there are safety and privacy issues involved, including the fact that "teenagers may be interacting with strangers in these transactions," the Times points out. For example, if a kid doesn't want to pay to ship an item, s/he may make arrangement to meet a seller in person. Parents may want to review ads before placement too, since teens may unthinkingly include a phone number or address in a craigslist ad.

  3. 'Social intelligence' and youth

    People's "social intelligence" is impaired when they socialize online. In "real life," wee socialize with what author Daniel Goleman calls a "face-to-face guidance system" that gives us "a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues" when we interact. It's what helps the interaction go well, so that nobody gets hurt or makes a gaffe. Take the face-to-face part out, he says in a commentary in the International Herald Tribune, and what we've got is "disinhibition" - psychologists' term for "the many ways people behave with less restraint in cyberspace." It's what explains bullying, harassing, or just rude behavior online. Obviously, it's not just a challenge only for young socializers, but especially for middle schoolers - before driving, when so much out-of-school socializing happens in streams of instant messages and social site comments - the amount of online socializing (and adolescent spontaneity) can compound the social risks.

  4. NJ schools held liable for bullying

    In a unanimous decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that school districts are responsible for stopping bias-based harassment of students, New Jersey Online reports. "Much like employees in a workplace, students have the right to attend school without being subjected to repeated taunts from other children," the court said. Its ruling addressed a case brought years ago by a student "who complained he was slapped, punched and repeatedly taunted [for years] from the time he was in fourth grade by classmates who perceived him as gay." The court's opinion stated that "students in the classroom are entitled to no less protection from unlawful discrimination and harassment than their adult counterparts in the workplace.... We do not suggest, however, that isolated schoolyard insults or classroom taunts" would be enough to spark a legal case, the decision said.

  5. Gates family's 'screen limits'

    Just a fun little parenting tidbit from a famous family: Bill and Melinda Gates's oldest child, who's 10, only just became "a hard-core Internet and computer user" when she started attending a school "where the students use tablet computers for almost everything," Reuters reports. Suddenly she was an avid gamer who could spend hours a day playing Viva Pinata on the Xbox 360. The Microsoft founder said his 10-year-old daughter, his oldest child, was not a hard-core Internet and computer user until this year, when she started at a school where the students use tablet computers for almost everything. So her parents set a limit: "45 minutes a day of total screen time for games and an hour a day on weekends," plus whatever time is needed on the PC for homework.

  6. High Court declines child-porn case

    The US Supreme Court refused to hear the constitutional challenge to a 200-year prison term for an Arizona man convicted of possessing child pornography, Reuters reports. It was "turning down his appeal arguing that the sentence was excessive or cruel and unusual punishment" for someone with no previous criminal record. The man's lawyers said that Arizona law, with its mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for each image of child pornography to be served consecutively "is the toughest in the nation" Under federal law, the man would have received a sentence of about five years' imprisonment, Reuters added.

  7. YouTube ban in Oz state's schools

    YouTube will be banned from Victoria's 1,600 public schools "in a bid to clamp down on cyberbullying," Australia's The Age reports. The ban followed "public outrage after a group of schoolboys filmed themselves sexually abusing and degrading a teenage girl and uploaded the video onto YouTube," according to Agence France Press. According to The Age, a teachers union official, Mary Bluett, said the ban will have little effect - that cyberbullying occurs via cellphones more than Web sites, and most schools have clear policies on mobile phone use. She added that it's more important to educate people about the effects of bullying than "trying to police the action." Victoria's Principals Association President Fred Ackerman welcomed the ban, The Age reports, but agreed that it "could only be a small part of the solution to the problem of cyberbullying."

  8. Job search in the Digital Age

    Among other places, Google is looking for potential employees in social-networking sites, WebProNews reports. The writer got that from Jeff Moore, who recruits for Google and recently gave a talk at Harvard on "The Impact of Technology on Job Search." Moore had some tips for young job seekers, which WebProNews lists. The two I'd highlight: "Manage your public profile" and "Be careful about what you do online." As I've mentioned probably ad nauseum in this newsletter, we need to help our kids figure out how to be their own spin doctors and schools need to fold "spin control" into media literacy lessons - fast! [See "Today's 'cave painters'," "Participation: Key opp for our kids," "Teen reputations, jobs at risk," and "Budding online spin doctors."]

  9. 'Wired means connected, Mom?'

    The idea that somebody who is "wired" is Net-literate or connected is fading fast - and will no doubt mystify our kids! A third of US Net users have now used the Web via a wireless network, and 20% now have wireless networks at home, the Pew Internet & American Life Project announced in its just-released data memo. And that 20% is double that of January 2005, Reuters reports. What this says is that the Internet is indeed more mobile and more "always on" all the time, and from a parent's perspective it means less and less control over children's Internet activities. Parents might consider this from tech educator Wesley Fryer (to fellow educators): "I think the question should not just be 'how do I control it' but 'how do I manage it?' The issue should be one of helping cultivate an accountable, responsible, and respectful culture of computer use in school [at home too?] rather than seeking to entirely shape user behavior through ... blacklisting websites and blocking port access."

  10. What to teach K-6 about tech

    Sorry, I'm blogging about a blogger's blog post, here, but this is relevant to parents and educators. It's about what Internet "usability guru" Jakob Nielsen says children should be taught about computers in elementary school (click to it from this San Jose Mercury News blog. Nielsen's bottom line: "Schools should teach deep, strategic computer insights that can't be learned from reading a manual." Hear, hear! I'm highlighting here three of his eight general skills, which I think are absolute musts: search strategies, information credibility (children click ads much more than adults do, and teens are particularly impatient in info-gathering, which makes them more vulnerable to hype, etc.), and how to deal with information overload (he has some simple strategies for all ages here). Here's Nielsen's "Life-Long Computer Skills."

  11. 'Web 2.0 on the go'

    Cellphone bloggers and social networkers (as opposed to Web-based ones) are more likely to upload pictures and videos because they have the camera right in their hands, the BBC reports. Web-based socializers use text more because the keyboard's at their fingertips. The BBC cites the view of a mobile-social-networking executive that mobile socializing is more about people's lifestyles and Web socializing more about opinion, politics, etc., but I think he's thinking about adult Web 2.0 users more than teenaged ones. The next big thing, a BBC source says, is using phones not to access social sites like Bebo and virtual worlds like Second Life, but as bridges to connect virtual world and real one. For example, the avatar of a friend of yours in Second Life calls you on your cellphone from "in-world" (because you're not in-world at the moment), and when you pick up, you see the picture of her avatar on your phone screen (so you know where she's calling from). Check out this thoughtful article.

  12. Indie TV beyond YouTube

    If your kids love watching online videos, they probably already know this: There are a lot of places to go besides YouTube, Wall Street Journal tech writer Walt Mossberg points out. Some of them are full-length and/or multi-part shows and stories on sites such as (with its news series from Iraq, "Alive in Baghdad," and "Cube News 1" about an office cubicle worker's life) and These indie programs are often available on multiple sites, including YouTube, and have their own Web sites too. Details at the Journal.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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