While the internet has changed many things about our society for the good - providing quick and easy connection with friends and family, an amazing amount of information at your fingertips and tools for business - it has also unarguably added many unhelpful and potentially harmful media sources as well. Thinspos, or thinspiration sites, are one of those harmful media sources that may be inundating your adolescent with a "how-to" manual on eating disorders as well as inspiration to continue engaging in eating disorder behaviors.
What are thinspos?
Thinspo is short for thinspiration. Essentially these are websites, blogs, and social media sites containing photographs and/or videos of extremely thin people as a way to provide inspiration for those with eating disorders to continue their behaviors. Some of the photographs and videos are of mainstream actors, actresses, models and musicians, as well as many others of extremely malnourished people.
When these websites began popping up, they were known simply as Pro-Ana (pro-anorexia), Pro-Mia (pro-bulimia) and Pro-Ed (pro-eating disorder) sites. These sites may or may not have other information posted on them, in addition to thinspos. This other information may include instructions on how to have an eating disorder, weight loss tips, suggested eating disorder behaviors, as well as how to hide the behaviors/eating disorder from parents and physicians.
What effect do pro-eating disorder sites have?
In addition to encouraging the development and maintenance of unhealthy eating disorder behaviors, pro-eating disorder sites glamorize eating disorders and often tout eating disorders as "a lifestyle choice." Sometimes forums or shared contact information provide people with a community which supports and encourages eating disorders and discourages treatment and recovery.
Even for people who have no history of eating disorders, these websites can have harmful effects. One study, on college-aged women (none of whom had eating disorders), discovered that when exposed to pro-eating disorder websites, 84% had a caloric reduction of more than 2,000 calories per week after viewing the websites. Only 56% of those who were affected realized that they were reducing their intake. Results of the study also indicated that the women exposed to the pro-eating disorder website had decreases in self-esteem, negative affect, and perceived attractiveness.
Who maintains pro-eating disorder sites? Why aren't they taken down?
Typically the people who maintain these sites are suffering from severe eating disorders themselves. The type of language used on the sites is often how sufferers describe the cognitions (thoughts) that the eating disorder promotes. While legislation has been proposed in several countries, it is currently legal to maintain such sites.
On a positive note, several social networking sites including Tumblr, Facebook and Yahoo Groups do not allow pro-eating disorder groups as they have banned sites which promote self-harm. Unfortunately, there are many other sites which do allow pro-eating disorder information, groups and photographs to be posted.
What can parents do?
Parents in today's society have a unique responsibility: to monitor the online connections of their children. Many parents are already monitoring for other issues such as drugs, pornography or other inappropriate websites. Pro-eating disorder websites should fall into the same category. Some suggestions are:
- Regularly monitor your child or adolescents online activity. This may include regularly checking their e-mail, Facebook or other social networking sites.
- Maintain open communication about any websites or topics that you find to be questionable.
- Create clear expectations and boundaries about what types of websites are off-limits in your home.
- If your child or adolescent is currently in treatment for an eating disorder (or has had an eating disorder in the past) make sure to vigilantly monitor their internet activity for visits to pro-eating disorder websites. Depending on the severity of the eating disorder, you may consider consulting with your child's treatment team about whether it would be appropriate to limit internet access completely or possibly installing software to monitor and/or block such sites.
Jett, S., LaPorte, D.J., & Wanchisn, J. (2010). Impact of exposure to pro-eating disorder websites on eating behaviour in college women. European Eating Disorders Review, 18, 410-416.