The Internet can be a tremendous source of positive information – but it’s important to remember that the online world can be a dangerous place, particularly for vulnerable individuals. [Photo by PictureYouth via Flickr, licensed for use with attribution by Creative Commons.]

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Because of the isolation, confusion, and guilt that often accompany cases of anorexia and bulimia, online communities such as blogs, forums, networks, and support groups can provide a life-saving connection for individuals who are struggling with these disorders.

However, as is almost always the case with the Internet, considerable caution must be taken when engaging with online eating disorder sites. For example, while renowned and well-established sites such as Something Fishy have a history of helping ED sufferers and their loved ones, some less reputable sites take a decidedly unhealthy approach to the topic.

Sites that actually encourage self-starvation and other forms of disordered eating remain troubling prevalent. By creating a false sense of togetherness and belonging among sufferers who otherwise feel ostracized, these sites can expose vulnerable individuals to unhealthy pressures and harmful “advice.”

Enhancing this pseudo-intimacy is the fact that, on these sites, the names of the two most prevalent disorders (anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa) are often shortened to the innocuous-sounding nicknames “Ana” and “Mia.”

“Pro-ana sites, created primarily by young women who have eating disorders or are in recovery, often view anorexia as a lifestyle,” Chicago Tribune blogger Julie Deardorff wrote in an Oct. 3 post on the newspaper’s website. “Featuring photos of sickly thin models … the sites give tips on coping with starvation and talk of “Ana” and “Mia” as if they were troublesome old friends.”

According to the Toronto-based National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), many of these sites have been founded by individuals who have eating disorders themselves, but who “falsely believe that they are okay [and] falsely believe that anorexia is a choice, and that other people support their choice.”

To achieve these objectives, NEDIC says that “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” sites engage in the following dangerous activities:

  • Promoting eating disorders as lifestyle choices rather than as potentially deadly illnesses.
  • Providing unhealthy and harmful weight-loss tips and techniques.
  • Suggesting ways to deceive loved ones about the extent of one’s weight loss.
  • Targeting girls and young women (who comprise the prime demographic of individuals who are afflicted with eating disorders).
  • Encouraging young girls and women who already have eating disorders to continue their harmful behaviors.

Read more about the dangers of pro-ana and pro-mia websites.