Eating Disorders and the Internet: A Dangerous Mix

According to the Association against Anorexia and Bulimia (ACAB), 11% of young Spaniards are at risk of suffering from some type of eating disorder. It is a health problem that particularly affects girls, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

To this we must add another factor that is part of the problem: Internet content that encourages you to follow harmful or pathological food dynamics.

Eating Disorders and Their Footprint on the Internet

The annual report produced by ACAB in collaboration with the Internet Quality Agency (IQUA), which analyzes the increase in Internet content linked to severe eating disorders, shows that the group most likely to suffer from these diseases are young women and adolescents (At an age between 12 and 24 years old). In addition, it is estimated that there is a great vulnerability among those who visit these websites, as in most cases (75%) they are minors.

In short, the misuse of social networks and their relation to eating disorders is a problem that particularly affects young minors with worrying prevalence.

Pathological “hashtags”

A 2010 Internet Quality Agency (IQUA) study by the Image and Self-Esteem Foundation found that there were around 2,500,000 posts tagged with the hashtag #anorexia and nearly 4,000,000 behind #ana and #mia.

This is why in 2012, the popular network of images and “like addicts”, Instagram, took action and included in its list of banned tags, that is, they would not get search results. ): #probulimia, #proanorexia, #loseweight, #thinspo, # thinspiration (thin “primor” and “inspiration”, etc.

Unfortunately, this measure did not eliminate the problem. Proof of this are the results of the Dangerous Hashtags study on social networks Laura Martín-Pérez, Linguist DAIL, published in the summer of 2015. He discovers there new techniques of Internet users which make it more difficult to follow hashtags.

A problem we resist

Up to 1,005 combinations of tags appearing next to #ana and #mia, such as #skinny (thin) or recently, #thinspiration, the abbreviation for “thin” and “inspiration”, in addition to other tags than all psychologists recommend monitoring and that go beyond the food issue, such as #sue (suicide), #deb (depression) or #cat (self-harm; suicide).

Internet as a risky environment

In a more recent study from 2016, the Dialogue Council for the Prevention of Eating Disorders in Catalonia also looked at our research habits, finding that 31.6% were looking for ‘how to lose weight fast’, 11.6 % “Extreme diets to lose weight”, 10.8% pro-ana and pro-mia blogs and forums and 5.2% “how to throw up”.

In addition, emphasis was placed on the fact that frequenting social media and spending hours online is associated with an increased risk of eating disorders and concerns about body image.

The conclusion that can be drawn is that our internet search habits reflect the extent to which we are not immune from the cultural pressure of the canons of beauty. Young teens are even more sensitive and likely to be affected by this content, so using social media is becoming a risky practice for this internet user profile (which doesn’t mean that the web is going to be harmful for everyone. cases).

The power of influencers

In 2015, the model and Instagram star Essena O’Neill, 18, revealed to the world that behind every photo of her was a lot of emotional suffering and food restriction, and created a website to help other teens and young people break with the following and the likes. She was an influencer, one of the most popular people on Instagram, and had over 700,000 followers, a fact that serves to give some idea of ​​Essena’s power of influence.

The weight of these young models on the net is overwhelming, as 88% of young women say they follow influencers via social media, according to the 2016 annual study on social networks carried out by IAB Spain. The fact that such network models can be involved in potentially pathological food dynamics raises alarms in various health-related sectors.

Use the social network to fight against pathology

The precedent set by the young instagramer has led others to tackle foodborne illnesses online. These are initiatives in which the Internet is used to spread critical thinking and empowerment to prevent possible harmful effects of the internet related to eating disorders.

Following in Essenia O’Neill’s footsteps, a young woman documented her recovery on Instagram under the hashtag #anorexiarecovery. That is, he reversed the pro-pathological use of the social network to lead by example and promote a lifestyle away from eating disorders. In 2016, there are already several cases of new influencers following in Essena O’Neill’s footsteps, and there are also occasional celebrity claims criticizing social pressures that keep many young people from adopting healthy habits.

Social networks remain potentially dangerous

however, even today we can see social media as potentially dangerous, at least for this at-risk group of girls and teens.

Laura Martin-Pérez considers that it is quite easy to keep a trace of these pathological labels, in the opinion of the administrations do not apply measures in this direction, there are therefore not enough control measures on contents that can have a negative impact and form harmful to minors. Content that apologizes for anorexia or bulimia in a more or less veiled way remains a reality on the Internet.

We must therefore go further to fight against these messages, denouncing them as adult users.. Remember that children do not yet have that critical eye that allows us to discern between health and extremism or pathology.

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