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.
Castro, T. S., Osorio, A. (2012). Online violence: Not beautiful enough… not thin enough. Anorectic testimonials in the web. PsychNology Journal, 10(3), 169 – 186. Retrieved [month] [day], [year], from www.psychnology.org.
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