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Self-harm among young people – Eating disorders online

3 minutes reading time
11-17 years
Social Media
© photothek.net

During puberty, adolescents’ bodies go through major changes that they first have to come to terms with. At the same time, young people are looking for affirmation and recognition. Social media such as Instagram,
also play a role: selfies are sent or posted in the hope of receiving positive feedback. Influencers show themselves in perfect and slim bodies that serve as role models for young people.

Sometimes young people cannot find a contact person among their family or friends or prefer to talk to strangers out of insecurity. The Internet offers many opportunities to obtain information and exchange information anonymously.

Supposed help in internet forums

In addition to a lot of helpful information, you can unfortunately also find offers on the Internet that glorify self-harming behavior by people – especially young people. Pro-ana or pro-mia blogs are forums where people suffering from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia can contact each other and exchange ideas. It is mainly young girls who meet there. Pro-Ana or Pro-Mia are deliberately chosen abbreviations for Pro-Anorexia Nervosa (anorexia nervosa) and Pro-Bulimia Nervosa (binge eating disorder). Blogs are not about supporting each other in getting a handle on the disease. Instead, the disease is presented as a lifestyle. In “Thinspirations”, members of the communities share their photos and videos of beauty ideals. This can include features such as protruding bones or the gap between the thighs.

Hunger and weight loss groups in messengers and glorifying profiles on social media

In WhatsApp groups, young people encourage each other to eat as little as possible. These groups often come about via eating disorder blogs or calls on social media platforms. The group members take part in hunger challenges or have to prove that they have lost weight by taking a photo of the scales every week. Those who don’t follow the rules are kicked out or receive punishments such as deliberate vomiting or an extra portion of sport. The blogs and social media profiles also contain glorifying content such as professions of faith or the ten pro-ana commandments: “If I’m not thin, then I can’t be attractive” is the first commandment, for example.

Many pro-ana blogs have now been blocked or are no longer in operation. Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok and other social media platforms also block content with the respective hashtags and refer to advice services instead. However, there are still blogs that are not yet blocked and social media sites that are less strictly controlled, such as TikTok. This means that it is still easy to view glorifying images and videos or access WhatsApp groups.

Children and adolescents with eating disorders find reassurance in such online exchange spaces. The strong sense of community encourages them to continue their self-harming behavior. This can be particularly dangerous if risks are dismissed, group members are urged to keep their illness a secret and refuse outside help.

How you as a parent can protect your child from this

First of all, it is important that you are always the contact person for your child, also with regard to their Internet use. It is difficult for you to prevent your child from encountering inappropriate content. You should therefore talk to your child about the fact that there are also problematic sites and communication risks on the Internet and always stand by their side. If you yourself end up on websites that specifically glorify eating disorders, contact the platform’s support or have them checked by a reporting office.

Regardless of your child’s online use, you should always boost your child’s self-esteem and avoid negative comments about their appearance or weight. If you suspect an eating disorder, you can find information and help from counseling centers, e.g. the Federal Center for Health Education or digital counseling services for children and adolescents.

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