Thinspiration: Do Web Sites Encourage Anorexia?

Recently there has been increased concern over
hundreds of "pro-eating disorder" Web sites that provide
"thinspiration" to legions of young women who want to become stick-thin.

These sites provide an online community to swap tips on how to fast, disguise disordered eating

,
and generally "encourage" anorexia (though people don't really need to
look far for information on dieting tips or how not to eat).

Following
public complaints and concerns, many such "pro-ana" sites have been
shut down. In 2001, for example, the search engine Yahoo purged over
100 pro-anorexia sites. French officials have recently threatened to
criminalize groups they believe encourage eating disorders, arrest
their members, and shut down Web sites
hosted in France. People posting images of thin women or sharing
dieting tips could face up to three years in prison and more than
$70,000 in fines.

The concern is surely well-meaning, but is it misplaced?

For
as much concern and furor as these "pro-ana" sites have generated,
there is very little evidence of harm. As Kenyon College psychology
professor Michael Levine told the International Herald Tribune, "You're
going to be hard pressed to demonstrate in a very clear way that these
sites have a direct negative affect."

There
has been little research on the effect of "pro-ana" Web sites, and what
there is shows no cause for alarm. A 2006 study, "Surfing for
Thinness," published in the journal Pediatrics, examined nearly 700
families of patients diagnosed with eating disorders. Among their
conclusions, "Pro-eating disorder site users did not differ from
non-users in health outcomes," and those visiting "pro-ana" Web sites
were not hospitalized any more often than those visiting Web sites
promoting healthy recovery.

It's not
surprising that researchers found little evidence of harm, since eating
disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia are biological diseases,
not voluntary behaviors. The idea that a person, image, or Web site can
"encourage" anorexia is not supported by science or research.

The
concern over "pro-ana" Web sites stems from the popular myth that
simply seeing images of thin people causes eating disorders. Anorexia
is a very rare and complex psychological disorder with a strong genetic
component. Genes, not Web sites, cause anorexia.

Ironically,
mainstream anti-eating disorder materials may do more harm than
"pro-ana" Web sites. Research shows that depictions of bulimic behavior
actually encourages young women in their disordered eating. Experts
suggest that televised depictions showing girls bingeing and purging
(such as might be seen in after-school specials) serve as a behavior
model.