Taking Action: Fighting websites that promote eating disorders

Taking Action
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TENNESSEE VALLEY (WHNT) - There's been a rise in chilling websites that promote eating disorders, and they could have a big impact on your teenagers.

A new survey from the National Eating Disorders Association estimates approximately half a million teens struggle with eating disorders.

Adam Roderick was one of them.

"I started putting a lot of pressure on myself to excel and pursue perfection, to prove everybody wrong," Adam Said. "I was taking it to the next step. The unhealthy level. And then eventually slipped into restriction."

Roderick was 19 years old when he started starving himself.

Adam Roderick during his struggle with Anorexia.
Adam Roderick during his struggle with Anorexia.

"For me, I was trying to live up to that societal norm, that pressure that was being put on me," he said.

Type Anorexia or Bulimia into an Internet search engine and the results will typically consist of help, information and support for people who are suffering from an eating disorder.

Type in 'Pro-Ana or Pro-Mia', and you'll see a very different picture.  Websites with pages and pages of potentially fatal messages. And the message has gone viral.

Dr. Emily Whitt works with the Eating Disorder Center of Alabama. She said she sees a lot of adolescents getting on these websites that can trigger their behavior.

"These are very dangerous and disturbing sites that promote eating disorders -- which are the deadliest mental illness that there is, so it is serious," Dr. Whitt said.

What starts with a search for daily workout could easily lead somewhere else , the world of 'Pro-Ana.'

"You know, it was like I knew they were wrong and I knew that they were unhealthy... but I couldn't look away," said Roderick.  "There's a lot of people out there who that's the only contact they have is with people who are on message boards, who are posting on these sites -- is that message of... sickness."

Messages on these sites include:

"Hungry? Have a bottle of water"
"You don't need food"
"Dear stomach, you're bored, not hungry. So shut up."

Doctors say these unhealthy messages of 'thinspiration' promote unhealthy behavior to some of the most vulnerable victims. Dr. Whitt was shocked when she came across them on the web.

"I said how very sick. I was just very disturbed. And, it's sad and shocking that something so deadly and so self destructive can be made to look attractive," said Dr.  Whitt.

Roderick said the websites treat eating disorders like old friends.

"They were so memorizing in so many different ways because they fed into all those sick thoughts that you struggle with and honestly preyed on them. So, it was kind of like, 'I hate it but I love it' kind of relationship," he explained.

By the time Roderick discovered these pages and pages of pro-Anorexia, pro-Bulimia messages, he was pretty far into recovery. But, he knows if it were sooner, it would have been detrimental.

Adam Roderick at his wedding after he fully recovered from his struggle.
Adam Roderick at his wedding after he fully recovered from his struggle.

"It's kind of a scary thought to think about, where it might have led if I had seen them a year or two earlier."

"Anyone who gets on this website will see how disturbing and sick the information is," said Dr. Whitt. "They're trying to lure people in who are already vulnerable."

The Pro-Ana/Pro-Mia sites have a disclaimer:  This site does not encourage that you develop an eating disorder.  This site is for those who *already have an eating disorder and do not wish to go into recovery.  If you do not already have an eating disorder, better it is that you do not develop one now.  You may wish to leave.

So, they claim they aren't encouraging eating disorders, but simply supporting them.  Dr. Whitt doesn't buy it.

"They're absolutely promoting it," She said. "It wouldn't be called Pro-Ana meaning pro-Anorexia if they weren't promoting it. Anyone who gets on this website will see how disturbing and sick the information is. They're trying to lure people in who are already vulnerable."

Eating disorders are one of the deadliest mental illnesses, claiming almost 45,000 lives every year.

"This isn't real, this isn't healthy, this isn't how things really are," Roderick pleaded. "We need to teach them that there is hope, there is a flip side honestly."

"It's not the way," Dr. Whitt agreed. "The most unhappy people I know are these suffering with eating disorders. It's a lie and I'm sad that people are sold on this lie."

Roderick adds that these sites so often romanticize eating disorders, and they twist the truth.

"They don't show you the feeding tubes, they don't show you the heart problems, they don't show you the fact that you might lose your fingernails and your hair," he said. "They're just so caught up in the disorder that they don't acknowledge the flip side."

"I don't think that we should just sit and wait for it to go away," Dr. Whitt said. "I don't think it will."

Parents, there are signs to look for and preventative measures to take to help your child.  Watch for signs of isolation and constant comments on their own body image.  If you think they may have visited one of these sites, check their computer history.  If it's blank, that's a sign they might be hiding something from you.  And if your child is struggling, please get help.  It takes a community effort of education and concern to prevent this deadly disorder.

There are about 500 Pro-Ana or Pro-Mia websites. The FCC has had some success in getting these sites shut down, but social media is making that even more difficult now.

Here are some Frequently Asked Questions & Answers about eating disorders:

Q: How many people in the US suffer from eating disorders?
A: 24 million

Q: What is the average age group to suffer from an eating disorder?
A: Ages 12-25

Q: What are common symptoms of eating disorders?
A: Difficulty concentrating or focusing, depression, isolation, low blood pressure, stunted growth, hair loss, kidney problems

Q: How many teens struggle with eating disorders in the US?
A: 500,000

Q: What are some common myths about eating disorders?
A: They only affect teens and adults, They are just a 'woman's' problem, They are 'phase of life' problems, Individuals with eating disorders are 'crazy'

Q: How does an eating disorder begin?
A: Genetic Factors, Life Stressors, Cultural Expectations, Mental Disorders

Q: How many of those diagnosed with eating disorders are males?
A: 10-15 percent

Q: How much on average does the dieting industry make a year?
A: $40 Billion

Q: How many people die every year from eating disorders?
A: 45,000

Q: What are potential health risks of developing an eating disorder?
A: Muscle loss, Tooth Decay, Osteoporosis, Kidney Failure, Death

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders
National Eating Disorders Association