Dangerous pro-eating disorder communities still thrive on social media
Over the past decade or so, social media has gone from being a place where people talk about their friends, family, and relatively boring habits to a battleground, especially when it comes to talking about eating disorders.
Communities have sprung up on both sides of the issue. Many use the platform to talk about how eating disorders have negatively affected their lives and share encouragement or support for others dealing with similar issues. However, others use the platform with more dangerous motives to promote disordered eating as a means to achieve an emaciated, skeletal look.
Worryingly, a new study on social media suggests these pro-eating disorder groups are surging and spreading unhealthy ideas about body image, eating behavior, and excessive exercise.
The study, conducted by the University of Exeter in the UK, showed that hundreds or maybe even thousands of young women are still using Instagram and Twitter to share pro-anorexia images and messages referred to as “thinspiration” or “bonespiration”.
The accounts regularly post pictures from girls who highlight their worryingly thin bodies and protruding bones from lack of nourishment.
The study, published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, evaluated images shared under pro-eating disorder hashtags – including “thinspiration”, “bonespiration”, and “fitspiration”. What they found showed that there is a flourishing community of young women sharing damaging content glorifying a deadly mental illness.
While this alone would be cause for concern, there is evidence that these types of content can have a widespread effect on young women around the world, who see these images and seek to emulate their appearance.
“It’s very worrying,” eating disorder specialist Rhiannon Lambert told The Independent.
“I have clients who aspire for thigh gaps. They compare their appearance to others and find themselves suffering with large amounts of anxiety when using social media.
“Unqualified anecdotal advice is also rife,” continued Lambert.
Both Instagram and Twitter have previously tried to combat these pro-eating disorder groups by banning hashtags like “anorexia”, “proana”, “thinspiration”, “thighgap”, and “imugly”. However, these moves did little to slow the wave of content promoting eating disorders. Instead, users found ways around the tags.
“Anorexia and extreme weight loss is a serious social and medical problem,” said Catherine Talbot, a psychologist at the University of Exeter.
“To tackle this social contagion we need to be aware of the social media platforms being used by young people – mainly girls and young women – which is encouraging extreme weight loss. This behavior could seriously damage their psychological and physical health.
“Teenagers need to be taught about positive body image in schools and we need to build resilience.”