How Are Adolescents Affected by Websites That Support Eating Issues?

Adolescents spend more time on the internet than probably any other age group. Children who feel socially isolated in real life may seek out virtual support through websites and forums on the internet. In fact, sites devoted to virtually any and every topic exist and are easily accessible. But do these virtual support networks help, or do they perpetuate negative behaviors and beliefs?

That was the question at the center of a recent study led by Teresa Sofia Castro of the University of Minho in Portugal. Specifically, Castro wanted to see how websites that supported bulimia and anorexia affected the support and beliefs of adolescents who participated on them. Castro examined several Portuguese blogs written by adolescents about anorexia and bulimia. She studied the content and the support generated from these blogs and found that although the adolescents who posted on them found support there, they often did so at the expense of real-life support.

In particular, most of the adolescents reported feeling isolated, alone and alienated from peers and family members because of their anorexic lifestyle. Not finding validation and support from social ties, they sought it out on the web where they found a virtual network of friends who offered emotional support and empathy. Common themes on the blogs included being misunderstood, striving for perfectionism, failure, depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive issues, and a general lack of control.

‘Ana’ and ‘Mia’ are the names the adolescents use to refer to anorexia and bulimia, seeing them as both friends and enemies. Cutting was a major theme and other forms of self-harm and suicidal thoughts were discussed throughout the blogs. Castro found that feelings of powerlessness and lack of control were more painful than self-harm or the negative impact of disordered eating behaviors.

“For many adolescents dealing with internal or external conflicts, anorexia and bulimia may be the way to take control of their life,” said Castro. Although these websites appeared to offer support for emotional discontent, they also offered support for dangerous and risky behaviors. Castro believes that future research should explore ways to encourage these adolescents to find support networks that empower and motivate them to change their behaviors from negative ones to positive ones.

Reference:
Castro, T. S., Osorio, A. (2012). Online violence: Not beautiful enough… not thin enough. Anorectic testimonials in the web. PsychNology Journal10(3), 169 – 186. Retrieved [month] [day], [year], from www.psychnology.org.

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  • Lisa.M

    Lisa.M

    June 14th, 2013 at 11:53 PM

    Websites dedicated to helping are good.They now allow us to transcend geographical boundaries and make information available to many more than ever before.

    But those publishing content need not always be trust worthy.Sources could be biased and may not always be ethical.That can be a problem to an unaware adolescent.Also on forums, different people put in their own views,sometimes presented as facts.That could lead to wrong understanding and bias in the reader’s mind.

    I’m not sure what the solution could be for this but what I am sure of is that ethical and a small number of trust worthy sites can definitely help.

  • Becca Ruiz

    Becca Ruiz

    June 15th, 2013 at 4:37 AM

    If my teen is going through something that I feel powerless to help her with, then why would I allow her to look online for answers? I think that parents need to be more proactive. In my case the answer would be sitting down together and trying to talk this through, and then if that didn’t work then I would find a counselor for her that she would feel comfortable with and let them talk about things. I don’t think that it would ever be healthy to tunr a teenager loose on the ine=ternet looking for answers to something so critical just because of information like those sites that are out there for anyone to read and be influenced by.

  • Claude

    Claude

    June 16th, 2013 at 8:03 AM

    First of all I am appalled that these sites are even allowed to be out there, promoting thsi kind of self hatred and behavior that they do. But I know, freedom of speech and all that. The thing is, if you are supporting your kids at home, then this is not where they are going to go to seek out affirmation. They are going to look for that at home, not some website that encourages them to engage in this kind of unhealthy lifestyle. But you have to think about this. If this is what is being promoted at home or they in some way feel ashamed of themselves because of the way that they look or what they weigh, then there is a far greater chance that they will find sites like these and will begin to take what they say to heart. That is an awfully dangerous cycle of behavior for them to fall into, maybe even fatal.

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