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Pro-anorexia websites hurt viewers' self-esteem

Friday, September 14, 2007
By Anne Harding

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - No matter what their weight or their eating habits, young women feel worse about themselves and their appearance after viewing pro-anorexia websites, which explicitly encourage extreme thinness, a new study shows.

"It works on a couple of levels, it works on mood, it works on your body image," said Dr. Anna M. Bardone-Cone of the University of Missouri in Columbia, one of the study's authors. "Everyone's affected."

Bardone-Cone and her colleague Kamila M. Cass suggest that parents may want to take steps to prevent their children from viewing such sites, by blocking access to them and by keeping any household computers in open areas so they can supervise their use, for example.

So-called "pro-ana" websites have been in the media spotlight recently, the two investigators note in their report in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. Health professionals have expressed concerns that the sites, which include "thinspiration" photos of skeletal models and "Tips and Tricks" for losing weight, may be harmful to viewers.

To investigate, Bardone-Cone and Cass created a "prototypic" pro-ana website, and randomly assigned 235 female college students to view it, or a fashion website featuring normal-weight models, or a site on home decor. Fourteen percent of the study participants met criteria for having a possible eating disorder, while about 17 percent were overweight.

After looking at the anorexia-promoting Web site, young women had worse moods, worse social self-esteem, and a worse sense of their ability to cope with their appearance than those who viewed one of the other two websites. They also thought of themselves as heavier and said they were more likely to exercise and think about their weight in the near future.

The effect was the same whether or not women were actually overweight, and whether or not they reported possibly disordered eating behavior.

Many women who view pro-ana websites may not have active eating disorders, but are instead looking for weight loss tips or are simply curious, Bardone-Cone noted. "If I were the parent of a daughter, I'd definitely have concerns about that." She added that the findings confirm "there's stuff on the Internet that really kids shouldn't be seeing."

SOURCE: International Journal of Eating Disorders, September 2007
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