Preventing Eating Disorders in the Digital Age

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Eating disorders among teens, pre-teens, and school-aged children are rampant. The rates of diagnosis for psychiatric conditions including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other eating disorders are on the rise, and they show no signs of stopping. Many parents are familiar with the physical signs and symptoms. Far fewer are aware of the telltale indicators that are purely digital.

Research in the field suggests that early detection and treatment are the key to surviving an eating disorder. Early detection requires alert, involved parents who have educated themselves about the signs and symptoms that are proven red flags.

When widespread recognition of this illness began in earnest, there was no internet. Children were not glued to screens during every waking hour, and social media took the form of personal ads in the back pages of newspapers. Much has changed. And with those changes, the factors influencing the establishment, maintenance and entrenchment of eating disorders have changed right along with them.

One of the most disturbing developments in terms of eating disorder risk in the digital age involves the "pro-ana" or "pro-ED" presence online. These groups operate internet forums where children with or without eating disorders post and chat live about eating disorder-related topics.

Though some of these communities offer support for those attempting to recover from eating disorders, others are distinctly more sinister. Several active pro-ana groups actually encourage their users to delve more deeply into their disorders. They offer tips and tricks, for example, on how to purge more effectively or how to fool parents and doctors by hiding food, lying or faking their weight on the scale.

Even the most internet-savvy parent may not realize the extent of these communities. In the past, these groups were largely limited to websites set up on free hosting platforms. Today, pro-ana groups have sponsor-supported, fully developed sites. They fund themselves through advertising revenue and donations from members.

Unfortunately, a simple check of your child's web-browsing history on the family computer is not nearly enough to verify that your child is not a participant in one of these dangerous communities. In addition to fully fleshed out websites, the pro-ana community also thrives on social media and on messaging apps that your child may access exclusively on his or her cellphone. Instagram and Facebook are two very popular venues pro-ana members use to connect with each other.

Kik, Snapchat, WhatsApp and similar apps offer mechanisms for connecting and communicating that are popular with teens. The appeal lies in their seeming anonymity and ephemeral nature (messages "self-destruct" shortly after they are sent). Members of the pro-ana community use them extensively.

As if the existence of these communities was not disturbing enough on its own, another layer of danger lurks as well. Sadly, it may have even more destructive power. Pedophiles are known to "troll" pro-ana communities for potential victims. Some take the traditional route by portraying themselves as teenage girls in an attempt to befriend an unsuspecting user.

Others have discovered a means of connecting with innocent children by casting themselves as "coaches." It may be hard to believe, but eating-disordered children may seek out coaches to provide "meanspo." Meanspo is shorthand for "mean inspiration." In other words, these victims are looking for someone to make cruel comments about their weight and/or behaviors in the hopes that it will ramp up their motivation to diet or exercise.

If you find yourself imagining the worst when you think of what could happen when a pedophile is masquerading as a "coach" for eating-disordered teens, you would probably be correct. They may begin by demanding that a teen send nude photos, perhaps via a messaging app, to verify their starting weight or body size. Demands, of course, can ramp up to the point that the "coach" insists on meeting "irl" (in real life). The consequences, of course, can be utterly devastating.

Do you suspect your son or daughter may be suffering from an eating disorder? Are you concerned that they may be a part of a pro-ana community or are connecting with a pedophile masquerading as a pro-ana "coach?" Obtain a professional assessment or advice at once. Letting it go too long can literally be the difference between life and death.

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