In search of ‘thinspiration’, young girls turning to Twitter for eating disorder info

By Maricia Guzman, NewsNetNebraska

Jamie Mullen sat in her family’s computer room in the basement of her Colorado home. The soft glow of her computer screen illuminated her face as she sat alone scrolling through blog after blog.

Mullen, a teen figure skater and dancer, sifted through tips on how to count calories and how to “shrink” her stomach to make it smaller and less hungry.

She analyzed countless “thinspiration” photos — pictures of extremely thin girls on pro-anorexia web sites. People who operate sites that glorify anorexia and bulemia use the photos to motivate viewers. The “perfection” of their skeletal bodies captivated Mullen. If she heard someone coming, she quickly switched to another site until they left.

While online social media has been heralded as the “great connector” it also has an isolating dark side. Mullen was one of thousands of girls struggling with her body image. She and others have turned to internet sites like Twitter to seek out acceptance from others with eating disorders.

Mullen, now a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was once among scores of girls addicted to these websites to feed their other addiction: being thin. The online pro-eating disorder, or pro-ed, community is not new; controversial pro-ed blogs and websites have been around as long as the Internet. But in recent years, the pro-ed community has been turning to social media.

Now, their access to sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr is diminishing because of recent bans on posts that promote, encourage or advise others to pursue disorders such as anorexia, bulemia and cutting. Tumblr, for instance, cracked down on the practice in February.

That has sent many anorexics and bulimics to Twitter, where there are no such rules.

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Girls set up accounts and tweet about their “friends,” “Mia” or “Ana,” actually code for bulimia and anorexia. By simply following the right people on Twitter, young girls can get instant tips on how to binge and purge, see thinspiration photos of emaciated legs and stomachs with rubs jutting out, or interact with other Twitter users living with eating disorders.

Some of the most popular pro-ed accounts have thousands of followers from all over the world.

Psychologists and other health care professionals say this is extremely dangerous, partly because it causes a sort of anorexia and bulemia contagion among site regulars or even those who occasionally engage.

At her worst, Mullen was 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 108 pounds. She limited herself to 500 calories a day. She blog-surfed through “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) websites every day for at least two hours. She wanted to become a better anorexic.

Mullen never was officially diagnosed with an eating disorder, but she acknowledges that her eating and exercise habits were not normal.

She developed a problem with eating when she was in the 8th grade. At that time, social media wasn’t as prevalent, so she went to blogs and YouTube videos that encouraged anorexia.

“I first found pro-ana sites after I had already been restricting my intake and working out excessively,” Mullen said. “They didn’t cause me to start these behaviors but they did help me to take them further.”

Mullen said being a figure skater made her feel added pressure to look thin. She would look at pictures of extremely thin girls on blogs and desperately wish she had their bodies.

Through the sites, Mullen discovered new ways to restrict her caloric intake.

“One tip said if you cut out fruits and carbs, your stomach will shrink and you won’t be as hungry,” she said. “I also learned how to count calories from the blogs and to monitor and record what I ate.”

Without the blogs, she said, she would have never been introduced to calorie counting.

Mullen had always been a picky eater, so her family wasn’t too concerned whenshe turned down meals or said she wasn’t hungry. They had no idea that she was starving herself with help from the Internet.

Pro-anorexia websites are harmful, but using social media such as Twitter for encouragement is far more dangerous, said Crystal Zabka Belsky, director of the eating disorder program at the OMNI Behavioral Health Eating Disorder Clinic in Omaha.

“When people view Facebook posts or tweets about self-harm behaviors they may feel they need to engage in similar behaviors,” she said.

In fact, it often becomes a competition. For example, a girl may see a post about how little her follower ate today or how much she exercised and then feel compelled to eat less or exercise more than her “followers” or “friends.”

Unlike Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, Twitter currently has no regulations against pro-eating disorder or pro-self-harm accounts. When contacted and asked if pro-eating disorder and self-harm accounts are a concern for Twitter, a representative replied that “We may need to change these rules from time time and we reserve the right to do so.”

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Parents need to be aware that these sites exist, and take steps to cut off their child’s access, said Peg Miller Evans, manager of the eating disorders program at the Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha.

“Parents should feel empowered to monitor their child’s cell phone, lap top, and computer history,” Miller Evans said.

Parents also should demonstrate healthy exercise and eating habits as well as healthy self-talk in front of their children, added Zabaka Belsky.

While many health professionals agree with the Omahans about the dangers of eating disorder-focused social media, a recent study disagrees.

The 2012 study, conducted at Indiana University, is called “Communicating Stigma: The Pro-Ana Paradox.” Researchers interviewed 33 female authors of pro-anorexia blogs from around the world.

The girls interviewed for the study said that pro-anorexia blogs have helped them create social support, relieve stress and cope with the stigma that comes with having an eating disorder.

Some of the authors in the study did express concern that blogs and chatter on Facebook and Twitter could potentially entice others into similar lifestyles. However, the study suggests overall that pro-anorexia blogs may be misunderstood and instead could be beneficial and actually helpful to anorexics on the path to recovery because they provide community support without judgment.

Mullen, who once visited pro-anorexia blogs daily, is skeptical of those findings.

“I recently went back on pro-anorexia blogs just to look and the stuff on there is just crazy,” Mullen said.

Now, almost five years after the height of her disorder, Mullen studies dietetics and works as a diet clerk at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Lincoln. She is also president of Eating Disorder Education and Prevention, a UNL student organization.

She’s now an advocate for healthy, balanced eating. A good friend told a school counselor about Mullen’s strange eating habits, so luckily, she got help while still in high school.

“The recovery process has been really long and hard and I didn’t get better right away,” Mullen said. “but it’s a comfort to be able to be around food now without worrying about calories.”

Mullen worries bringing awareness to online eating disorder sites will prompt girls to seek out these destructive mediums. But she hopes her personal story will serve as a warning of how dangerous this type online social media can be.

She encourages other girls in recovery: “Don’t worry. You’ll get there.”

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