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Pro-ana and pro-mia: the dangers of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia sites for young people

Image: Ralph Aichinger

The number of young people admitted to hospital with eating disorders has doubled in the last three years, according to the NHS. Pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites are widely seen as being part of the problem. We look at what these sites are and why they may be so toxic.

More young people are being admitted to hospital because of eating disorders, with media reports noting that the number almost doubled in three years. The rise could be down to a range of factors, but among the leading suspects are pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites. 

Exposure to pro-anorexia (‘pro-ana’) and pro-bulimia ('pro-mia’) sites could increase a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder, according to some experts.

A young person who feels unhappy about their body or thinks they may have symptoms of anorexia can type ‘anorexia’ into a search engine and stumble across a website that promotes the illness as a lifestyle. The websites encourage extreme thinness through web pages filled with images showing emaciated and unhealthily thin women, known as ‘thinspiration’ or ‘thinspo’.

The persuasive tone of the written content of these sites, on top of media images showing unrealistically thin bodies, can be very harmful. The sites offer rules and tips on how to adopt an ‘ana’ or ‘mia’ lifestyle and are particularly damaging to people already suffering from eating disorders, as they can further fuel an already distorted mind-set in relation to eating, body image and weight.

These sorts of websites also have a presence on other social media and sharing platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr.

The UK government has expressed concern over the sites, but as yet no official legislation has been passed. France clamped down on them in 2015, meaning that people who run pro-anorexia or bulimia sites or actively promote extreme thinness in France could now face a prison sentence and a fine of up to €10,000 (£7,333) although it's debateable how effective a solution this is, given the fact some of the creators of these sites may be suffering from a mental health condition. It does demonstrate, however, that the French see this as a serious problem.

What can parents do?

Reporting these sites often has little effect, as creators often place disclaimers on the site. These effectively provide a loophole to prevent them being shut down. If they were forced to close, it’s probable those behind them would simply create a new website elsewhere, moving the content across.

What you can do is to be aware of these kinds of sites.

  • Filters at internet provider and device level can block many of these sites, though do check. If some are slipping through the net, you can blacklist particular websites as one of the options on the filtering software. 

  • Talk to your child about the sites they visit online and remind them to always tell you if they find something on the web that makes them feel unhappy or uncomfortable. Reassure them you won’t be angry with them, whatever they say. 

  • If you see that your child has been visiting these sorts of sites or becoming obsessed with images online, speak to them about it. Starting a conversation with them is the best way to determine how much of an effect they might be having, and if you need to take further steps to help them. 

If you think your child may be having disordered thoughts about eating and body image, or you’ve noticed some of the warning signs or symptoms, it’s important to talk to them or book an appointment with your GP. 

Further reading

Talking to your child about an eating disorder

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

Updated: ​May 2018

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