Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder (BED) typically emerge during adolescence and young adulthood, affecting females more often than males. Without treatment, eating disorders can be deadly. ActiveFence has investigated how certain online communities are exacerbating this public health crisis. For our comprehensive analysis – download the complete report below.
A Public Health Crisis
The past year has seen a rise in eating disorders, with isolation, uncertainty, and changes in routines related to the COVID-19 pandemic playing a critical role. The scale of this increase has left treatment centers overwhelmed by calls for help, with a growing number of young people being hospitalized.
However, social media is also playing a role in worsening this crisis, as certain online eating disorder (ED) communities are promoting dangerous behaviors that threaten lives. These communities are closed and tightly knit, encouraging members to starve themselves and drop down to unhealthy weights.
International research shows that just 5–15% of those afflicted with eating disorders seek help
What Are Eating Disorder Communities?
Eating disorder (ED) dedicated communities exist on various platforms, including direct messaging platforms, forums, blogs, and social media groups. Members of these communities follow one another’s accounts, share each other’s posts, create chats, partake in dangerous diet and fitness challenges, and form groups. Many of the participants in these communities are young adolescents, with some communities solely intended for minors.
These communities are used as a place for people to talk about their illnesses and are often used as a platform to encourage, support, and motivate one another to continue in their disordered eating. Users share recommendations and tips on losing weight quickly, suppressing appetite, hiding their condition from those around them, and dealing with eating disorder struggles.
Most of these groups are closed, private, and small, as members are not interested in enlarging the community or reaching a wider audience. Indeed, they approach only those who identify with them and who suffer from an eating disorder, as they want to keep the communities intimate.
In order to stay away from the public eye, remain a close community, and avoid detection and moderation, eating disorder groups and accounts use several techniques. These include using unique spellings of censored terms, closely guarding links to their groups, and using various verification methods to approve new members.
Online communities are a significant part of ED culture, providing support, inspiration, and a sense of camaraderie. Support communities for ED exist across all types of online platforms and include group chats, social media groups, forums, and blogs. These groups usually have dozens of participants and provide a space to share tips, post challenges, and conduct “body checks.”
One of the key goals of online communities is to share information, tips, and recommendations. For example, they share advice on losing weight quickly, suppressing appetite, dealing with parents and friends, hiding the condition, and managing the side effects of the illness.
ED users will also share “thinspo” (thin inspiration) photos of extremely thin girls. These images serve as inspiration and motivation to lose weight and imitate their appearance. Some of the girls used for “thinspo” are social media influencers with eating disorders themselves. These accounts can attract thousands of followers.
Truly building on the community aspect of these groups, partners are an integral part of ED communities—the “buddy system.” Members often use each other for support and encouragement, as well as for venting and sharing tips. These partners are commonly referred to as “ana buddies” or “ana coaches.”
Beyond the confines of ED communities, additional phenomena are appearing online that can further endanger those who suffer from eating disorders, including dangerous viral challenges and potential online abuse.
For example, there is a growing trend of exploiting and abusing young, vulnerable girls suffering from ED by men pretending to be “ana coaches.” These men exploit their victims’ mental illnesses, convincing girls to send naked photos of themselves so that they, the “ana coach,” can help them. These predators look for ED tags on social media platforms and join channels to get into ED communities and hunt for victims.
There are also numerous online challenges that emphasize extreme thinness, encourage unhealthy behaviors and eating disorders. Some of these challenges have gone viral across numerous social media platforms. For those suffering from ED, these challenges are a serious trigger. In some cases, famous social media influencers participate in these challenges, expanding the distribution of these trends.
Why It Matters
Eating disorders inflict devastating physical and psychological tolls on those they afflict, and social media has only exacerbated insecurities surrounding self-image. Furthermore, online spaces have become conduits through which individuals and groups promote life-threatening behaviors, placing a growing number of lives at risk.
Understanding that the online world has offline consequences, governments are no longer tolerating the proliferation of harmful content, including that which promotes self-harm. While many current regulations require reactive action, proactive measures are now finding expression in national legislation. As the pressure to moderate harmful content builds, platforms need faster and more reliable ways to remove harmful content. Failing to adapt to these demands could bear legal and reputational consequences.
Our full report, available for download below, will provide further context and insight into the formation and operation of eating disorder communities across a variety of platforms, as well as the risks they pose to users and platforms alike.