Eating disorders and social networks, a small guide to the phenomenon

Eating disorders and social networks, a small guide to the phenomenon
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Not just blogs so-called pro-ana or pro-mia: those, that is, those that present food behaviors and practices that aim to favor anorexia and bulimia, for example by providing "anti-hunger" diets and decalogues, examples of exercises to lose weight, tips to deceive parents. For some years now, the web space dedicated to anorexia and bulimia has been enriched by the communities and groups that have flourished on the main social networks, Instagram and Whatsapp above all: "Even more direct channels and therefore somehow facilitating compared to blogs and sites, that you have to go and look for yourself, and also used by preteens, children of 10 or 11 years "declares the psychiatrist Laura Dalla Ragione, head of the Food Behavior Disorders Network (DCA) of the Local Health Authority 1 of Umbria.

But what exactly do all these virtual spaces have? What impact do they have on the spread of eating disorders, and how to behave in defense? On the eve of the World Day to Contrast Eating Disorders, next June 2, we take stock of the situation.

Pro-ana or pro-mia blogs and online communities: how widespread they are

“It practically is impossible to make a precise quantification, because they are all very dynamic spaces, which are periodically canceled both by the administrators and by the same boys and girls who opened them, to avoid being traced ”. Word of Eva Claudia Cosentino, a few weeks ago new head of the National Center for the fight against online child pornography of the Postal and Communications Police.

But for sure it is a far-reaching phenomenon. "Just think that in an hour of online monitoring with simple search keys, such as" pro-ana "or" pro-anorexia "we found about 15 web spaces currently active, in the Del Paesena language, and as many now inactive".

Read also: Anorexia and bulimia, how to fight them

Blog versus social network

Until very recently, the virtual space par excellence dedicated to anorexia or bulimia was the personal blog in which the author (the phenomenon has always been typically female) declared, often proudly, her condition as an anorexic through food diaries, stories of personal episodes, pseudo-scientific citations in support of her eating style, apparently in search of a global legitimacy through the network.

"What is happening more recently - explains Cosentino - is however a massive shift of girls and boys with eating disorders towards instant messaging groups such as Instagram or Whatspp, which are organized according to a logic of continuous solicitation to participate of individual members, with a constant and obsessive sending of messages ".

The problem is that these groups are even more difficult to monitor because they are extremely elusive. Think of Instagram, which already in 2022 banned 17 hashtags accused of inciting anorexia or bulimia: well, a research conducted by scholars from the Georgia Institute of Technology, in the United States, showed a few years later that communities they were simply rearranged around other hashtags which they often were lexical variants of the former. Thus, for example, thinspiration became thynspiration or thynspo, while thighgap became thightgap or thygap.

What they contain, what they communicate

To begin with, we must start from the assumption that those who open or frequent these sites, blogs or groups are themselves a patient: "People themselves suffering, with deep pain and anguish "states Dalla Ragione.

“Blogs and social channels offer one vision of thinness as an absolute value e an exalted display of the slim body, shown in images in its various most significant parts such as belly or thighs ”says Dalla Ragione. “Also, there is often a link to the performance of superficial self-harm, such as cuts, burns, grazes ".

Finally, Cosentino underlines that from the observation of concrete cases that have come to the attention of the Postal and Communications Police "it emerges that at the basis of the creation and use of web spaces that enhance eating disorders, there is aexasperation of the search for identity, a claim of even morbid self-affirmation, as well as the need for sharing and belonging to a group ".

On the other hand, there is no manipulative intent that sets itself a priori the precise objective of inducing or aggravating a possible state of fragility of others.

They are dangerous? What impact can they have?

"Alone, a website, a blog or a social group cannot make a person sick with an eating disorder" reassures Cosentino. At the same time, however, it must be said that "can amplify already compromised situations, with a destabilizing effect on the fragile minds of people who are going through a particularly delicate phase of life ".

In short, it can become an additional risk factor for boys and girls (or even boys and girls) who are already at risk. Factor to which they are exposed very easily, given the spread of smartphones even among very young people.

According to Dalla Ragione, this is precisely one of the reasons for the increase in the incidence of eating disorders, which according to the estimates of the Del Paesena Society for the rehabilitation of eating disorders and the weight of which she is president today concern about 3 million people. “The network is an extremely fast and branched diffusion channel and allows for an easy amplification of certain information. It's like bullying, which has always existed, but which has experienced new dimensions and characteristics with cyberbullying ”.

Read also: Cyberbullying, what it is, how to recognize it and how to intervene

What to do if you come across proana or promia web content

“Until a few years ago, the presence of 'unencrypted' blogs on the web made it possible for any citizen who came across them to report it to the portal of the Postal Police. In the last three years, however, we have observed a drastic drop in reports, proof of a possible increase in the spread of 'private' forms of communication, such as groups, ”explains Cosentino.

“The most used practice is to activate thematic and informative blogs, in particular on Google, from which users can be privately redirected to smaller groups on other platforms, such as Instagram or Whatspp. These blogs are difficult to monitor, as they require admission by filling out a form and at first glance it is also very difficult to identify any minor users. In any case, if this happens, the Postal Police can start a process of 'securing' which involves the involvement of family, school, psychologists ”.

Parents and children, the importance of dialogue for prevention
The network is an opportunity, a resource, and should not be demonized. However, it contains dark corners, potentially very dangerous, with respect to which children and young people must be made responsible as soon as possible.

"The dialogue between parents and children remains the advice par excellence for promoting responsible use of the web and stimulating the critical spirit of young people in relation to the contents they can find there ", Cosentino affirms." Knowledge is the best weapon of prevention and protection ".

Eating disorder therapy and social networks

What if a girl or boy has already developed anorexia or bulimia? How to behave with respect to the use of social networks. "Surely prohibiting is of little use, both because it is not easy to succeed and because the network is now part of everyone's daily life ”states Dalla Ragione.

“Of course, with the patients and patients hospitalized in the residential centers for the treatment of dca Internet browsing may be temporarily banned or limited to a few moments, but what you are trying to work on is provide 'antibodies', protective factors that help patients to defend themselves once they return home ".

"Girls and boys find their physical and iconic myths online, images to refer to and against which to activate continuous comparisons, but what needs to be done is to lead them to think about what a person really is, about the fact that it is not certain only the image of his body (even if society as a whole today lives one ethical drift in which only what is seen counts). So we try to work on self-esteem and sense of self, to try to convey the message that fulfillment and happiness are not 100% related to body image.

The good of the network

On the other hand, the network is not just "evil". On the web there are also "good" and positive spaces with respect to the topic of eating disorders: blogs of people who tell stories and healing paths of the disease and encourage people to take care (such as Mollichina's tumblr), or social support groups, of self-help, of emotional sharing. Spaces on which to leverage for one contronarrazione online of these disorders.

A controversial bill
At the moment there is no specific law on the regulation of the network regarding the DCA phenomenon. There is however a bill bipartisan presented to the Health Commission of the Senate (the first signatures are by the honorable Maria Rizzotti and Caterina Bini), which provides for the recognition of anorexia and bulimia as social diseases and the introduction of the criminal offense of instigating, also via the web, the use of food practices suitable for causing anorexia or bulimia.
The penalties provided range from financial penalties to imprisonment to compulsory medical treatment.

However, it is a bill contested by many operators in the sector, who do not see an effective solution to the problem in the criminal conviction of sick people, as the managers of pro-ana or pro-mia web spaces are in general.

  • disorders
  • anorexia
  • bulimia
  • kids and social networks
  • 6-14 children years
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