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Eating Disorder Patients Turn to Internet for Empathy, Support

Teens are living more of their lives on the Internet. A teen struggling with an eating disorder may seek out websites with information about the disorder and end up connecting with commenters discussion forum members. While the teen may feel validated by the experiences of others online, they will not receive in-person support the same way a close friend or family member can. In a 2013 study, Teresa Sofia Castro of the University of Minho in Portugal examined how eating disorder patients responded to content available on websites related to eating disorders. Castro wanted to find out whether these sites provided support and how they influenced the beliefs of those teens who engaged in the sites. To do this, Castro analyzed several Portuguese blogs that were written by teens about anorexia and bulimia. Anorexia is characterized by the compulsive limitation of the absorption of calories. Individuals diagnosed with anorexia often severely limit food intake or engage in obsessive exercise to maintain a low body weight. Individuals with bulimia exhibit cycles of bingeing and purging, in which large amounts of food are eating in a relatively short period of time, only to be purged though vomiting or the use of laxatives. After examining the content on the sites, Castro also looked at the support that was generated. Castro found that while the teens who posted on the blog site were likely to find support, it was often obtained at the expense of real support offered by a friend or other loved one. The most common postings were by adolescents who indicated that they felt lonely and alienated from family members and their peers because they were suffering from anorexia. The teens visited the sites to fill this gap. On the website, the teens were able to connect with “friends” who could provide empathy and support. In addition to loneliness, teens visiting the blogs also reported feeling misunderstood, a goal of perfectionism, anxiety depression and other problems. When visiting the sites, the teens referred to their disorders as “Ana” and “Mia” for anorexia and bulimia, respectively. Among the other symptoms reported were those associated with cutting and suicidal ideation. There were also references to feelings of being powerless, as well as a general lack of control, and eating disorders can be a way to take control of an area of life. These websites appear to provide support for difficult emotional problems, but they can also encourage dangerous behaviors by making teens feel these behaviors are normal, or by teaching new ways to avoid the absorption of calories. Castro suggests that future studies could focus on discovering ways that teens could find support that encourages healing and the changing of behaviors in a positive way.

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