Finding support online can be a powerful thing – and not always in a good way.
For some individuals living with anorexia nervosa, the web has provided a dark outlet for reinforcing harmful behaviors. On social media and other sites, images of dangerously thin figures are tagged #thinspiration and extreme dieting is embraced.
It’s one of the many risks parents need to know about when it comes to anorexia nervosa, a potentially life-threatening eating disorder affecting young people and adults. This severe mental and physical illness is characterized by self-starvation and difficulty maintaining an appropriate body weight, explains Judith Banker, the founder and executive director of the Center for Eating Disorders in Ann Arbor and lead consultant in the Eating Disorder Recovery Program at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor.
The exact prevalence of anorexia is unknown since eating disorders often go undiagnosed, though national surveys estimate around 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, Banker notes.
“I have given talks on campus and to various medical groups throughout my career. I always ask, ‘Who here knows someone who has had an eating disorder?’ In the early years, one or two hands would go up,” she says. “Now almost everyone’s hand goes up, regardless of the size of the crowd.”
Awareness of eating disorders has increased, but research also shows cases of anorexia have steadily gone up over the past 50 years, “in particular in teen and young adult women,” Banker says.
And with the rise of social media and pro-eating-disorder websites, teens may be finding a false support system online.
“It is critical for parents to know about the ‘thinspiration’ and pro-eating-disorder sites that exist online. Very ill individuals, typically people deeply trapped in their eating disorder thoughts and beliefs, recruit others to follow their guidance and rules with tips on how to better stick to a diet or intensify weight loss,” Banker explains. “Efforts have been made by eating disorder education and advocacy groups to shut down these sites, but they have not been effective.”
Parents need to be extremely vigilant, especially if they notice signs that their child may be suffering from an eating disorder.
“The best approach is to foster self-esteem, media literacy and a supportive, non-diet culture at home and in schools,” she adds.
There are a variety of psychological, social and genetic risk factors for eating disorders, Banker says. Oftentimes, body dissatisfaction and dieting are key factors.
“Unfortunately, in our current culture, it is not uncommon for many to experience dissatisfaction with body weight, shape (or) size,” she says. “People at risk for eating disorders may experience this dissatisfaction in a more intense, unrelenting way.”
Misconceptions about anorexia can also make it more difficult to identify and treat. Weight, for example, is not a reliable indicator of an eating disorder, Banker points out.
“A particularly low weight person may be getting plenty to eat and feel fine, and a very high weight person may be starving themselves and be isolated and depressed,” she says. “The misconception that only very low weight people have serious eating disorders is one of the reasons eating disorders so often go undiagnosed and untreated.”
Fortunately, “excellent treatments” are available for anorexia, Banker says.
“It is a difficult but highly treatable illness. Early diagnosis and treatment offers the best chance at recovery, but even after multiple treatment failures, people with anorexia nervosa can recover,” she emphasizes. “Teens and children with anorexia must be treated as soon as possible. Starvation/restricted intake in a growing body of a child or teen can take a more severe toll much faster than in an adult.”
Finding the right treatment program is critical.
“Never give up,” Banker urges, even if treatment attempts have failed in the past. “We have seen these people recover – after 20, 30, 40 years or more of eating disorder suffering.”
All parents should be aware of anorexia, even if they do not believe their children are at risk.
“Parents can benefit from understanding that starvation/restricted intake in a child or teen is devastating and should never, ever be encouraged, regardless of body weight (or) size,” she says. “Ignore pressure from anyone who tries to tell you your child needs to lose weight. Focus on who the child/teen is – their talents, traits, personality.”
And if you discover a problem, “seek help immediately.”
“Recovery is possible. Recovery happens every day,” she says. “Support and guidance for you and your child will help you get to the other side.”
Brought to you by the Ethel & James Flinn Foundation. For more information, visit flinnfoundation.org.