Looking for “thinspiration”: How the Internet encourages eating disorders

While the occurrence of eating disorders is based on a mixture of genetic, hormonal, social and cultural factors loading the proverbial gun, there is one type of social media phenomenon which clearly acts as a deadly “trigger”. As internet penetration and social media use increases in Africa, the continent needs to be prepared to stamp out any pro-eating disorder sites that rear their ugly heads.

HumanIPO reported last week on the role potentially facilitating role played by social media in the development of eating disorders, but the Internet can play a much more direct role in affecting people’s perceptions of themselves.

So called “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” sites see anorexia and bulimia sufferers support fellow website users in their weight-loss endeavours by way of forums and the exchanging of weight loss advice.

It is only since the advent of social media that the concept of “thinspiration” has been coined – the use of images or videos of particularly thin women (who often may also be eating disorder sufferers), especially slim celebrities, by dieters as a form of inspiration to lose weight. Mottos, poems, and song lyrics also are often used as “thinspiration”. Conversely, images of food and overweight people are also used on “thinspiration” spaces, to encourage shared hatred and repulsion.

As social media use expands on the African continent – and concurrently, the occurrence of eating disorders becomes more prevalent among the black African population (related or not) – attention needs to be paid to the unanticipated and negative uses of the Internet that can arise through use by vulnerable and ill individuals.

While the existence of “pro-ana”, “pro-mia” and “thinspiration” websites is clearly disturbing and a very direct example of how online content can be used for the wrong purposes, this is one side of the Internet effect that arguably can be stopped relatively easily.

Website administrators can take a variety of steps to stop the use of websites for encouragement of eating-disorders; and indeed regulators could in principle put in place safeguards to specialised websites much in the same way as parental guidance is sought for some content.

Social image-sharing sights Tumblr, Ingastram and Pinterest came under fire earlier this year as eating disorder sufferers flocked to the websites to create “thinspiration” communities. The networks changed their acceptable use policies, but this did not prove effective in eradicating all eating disorder related use.

In this vein, social media network Pinterest has taken further steps to limit the use of the image-sharing website for “thinspiration” purposes. It has blacklisted a set of eating disorder related search terms, limiting users’ ability to search for such content – and when such terms are entered, the following message is displayed in lieu of any results: “Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening”. It then adds helpline numbers.

While in the Western world steps are being taken to undo the damage caused by such pro-eating disorder websites, and social image-sharing sites commandeered by disorder sufferers, Africa should endeavour to stay ahead of the game. Regulators and governments need to put in place policies to prevent vulnerable (often young) internet users from being trapped in their illnesses by mal-used social media websites.

Posted in: Internet

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