The deadly connections feeding eating disorders

Young serious woman using digital tablet 

Thank you to these experts for their greatly valued input: Professor Susan J. Paxton, Latrobe University; The Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders; Psychologist Nick Duigan, eHeadspace.

Many parents are concerned about their children’s eating habits at different times. Some children progress through a ‘fussy’ stage in early and middle childhood, but eventually most eat a fairly balanced diet. However, for some children, adolescents and adults, an unhealthy relationship with food develops, and the results can be fatal.

Eating disorders claim the lives of more people than any other psychiatric disorder. At this very moment close to 1 million Australians are suffering from an eating disorder, but there is help available.1

Eating disorders can change the way the brain works. This means, for many people living with an eating disorder, they feel compelled to live their lives by a set of internal rules about food, exercise and their appearance, and they feel anxious and depressive thoughts if they break those rules.

Thoughts about what they should and shouldn’t eat, how they look, the exercise they should be doing, or the need to purge their body of food, can permeate their daily activities. Many people with a disorder manage to continue with their daily tasks, making it hard to identify a disorder until it is quite serious.

Eating disorders impact people from all backgrounds, all genders, all ages, all abilities, and they are complex in their cause and treatment. Having a child with an eating disorder is extremely worrying, however recovery from an eating disorder is possible.

It’s time we talked more openly about eating disorders – and about their nexus with online content. We need to know how we can help support those with eating disorders, and how we can encourage them to connect with resources that will help them, not harm them.

Online connections and eating disorders

The online world offers great possibilities for connection and help for people with an eating disorder. Organisations like the Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders provide online help and reassurance for people with an eating disorder, and those that care for them. eHeadspace, Lifeline, ReachOut and KidsHelpline also offer advice, and counselling services. 

Unfortunately, it is also easy for people with eating disorders to connect with messages that are unhelpful, and even harmful. Our news feeds are full of images promoting ‘fitness’, ‘thinness’, and ‘thinspiration’ as the ideal. These images trend daily despite the known links between viewing these unrealistic body images and lower self-esteem.2

Even more worrying are the many websites and forums developed by people with eating disorders that encourage unsafe behaviours in fellow-sufferers. For a person with an eating disorder, these forums can prove very dangerous.

When peer support does more harm than good

An eating disorder for many people can change the way they think, and the way they view themselves and the world. The person may feel compelled to follow their internal ‘rules’ for managing food and exercise, and may feel shame, anxiety and  pain if they ignore these ‘rules’, and feel some relief when they follow the ‘rules’.

With obsessive thoughts influencing their lives, the connection to family, friends and healthy interests can be impacted. They often feel isolated, and it is hard for parents and friends who have not experienced an eating disorder to understand and support them. The symptoms can also remain hidden until the person is very unwell.

A person with an eating disorder will often do what most of us would— search for like-minded people who understand what they are going through. The search terms they use vary from “how do I lose weight fast”, “how do I purge without anyone hearing”, and “how can I get diet pills without my parents knowing”.

The results open up a world of websites, blogs and forums encouraging harmful behaviours, including “pro-ano” (anorexia) and “pro-mia” (bulimia) websites. These sites encourage members to share tips to maintain low body weights and/or unhealthy food, purging and exercise habits without drawing attention from family and friends.

For people experiencing an eating disorder, these websites and forums connect them to a community that are going through similar experiences which can provide a sense of connection. Unfortunately, they also link them to a world of harmful ideas and encouragement to continue their self-harm.

Many online forums about eating disorders cultivate an “us against them” mindset, leading to further isolation of people living with an eating disorder from the services, friends and family they need to help them become well again. The identity of a person experiencing an eating disorder can become enmeshed with the disorder, and it becomes harder for them to connect with those who can help them.

If someone you care about has an eating disorder, support them to connect with the right people

Because of the harm that can be created through online connections, it is important that friends and family members know who a loved one with an eating disorder is connecting with.

When you develop a plan with a professional to help the person resume healthy eating and/or exercising, include guidelines about their online interactions. This should be done openly, honestly and with respect.

If your loved one has been involved in harmful online forums it can be very hard to leave these behind. When they disconnect from these unhealthy online groups they are leaving behind friends. They may have developed a strong relationship with these connections over many months or even years.

It is important to replace these connections with healthier ones, including offline friends and family, and online recovery boards run by the Butterfly Foundation or a local, State based eating disorder organisation.

The road to recovery may be long and stressful, so make sure you get support for yourself to help your loved one through their physical, emotional and psychological symptoms. The Butterfly Foundation can help you connect with a professional to guide you and your loved one through their recovery.

What we can all do

We can all learn more about eating disorders, the signs and symptoms, and how to provide support to those with a disorder and their family and friends. The Butterfly Foundation is a great starting point. They provide a National Helpline service that gives you the option of talking to someone over the phone, via email or webchat.

We can all question the impact of social media, and the ‘thinspiration’ and ‘fitspiration’ cultures that are spawning body image issues, and questioning why we are allowing the people flogging these ideals (for their own commercial gain) to be so very influential.

We can gently push back when a friend shares or likes a link to an extreme eating or exercising fad, and open a conversation among our own peers.

We can help young people think critically about the images we all see online and offline, and help them understand the commercial drivers behind them. We need to keep conversations open, to help encourage our children, whatever their age, to share their worries.

Let’s start talking, and reclaim ourselves in whatever form we take, and support those who are unwell to regain their psychological and physical wellbeing. Together we can help create a society that is more supportive of diversity, and happier and healthier for all.

Supports and Resources

Support and information for people experiencing eating disorders, their family and friends, and professionals

  • The Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders offers a multitude of services and programs that provide support, treatment, prevention, early intervention, education and training.
  • Mental Health First Aid Australia has step by step guidelines to support someone you suspect has an eating disorder. It includes the warning signs to look for, ideas about how to approach the person with your concerns, what to avoid when talking to the person about your concerns, and how to get professional help for the person.
  • eHeadspace has a fact sheet about eating disorders for young people.
  • Reachout has fact sheets about eating disorders for young people.
  • Your GP or local doctor can help you find local services for support.

Online and Phone Support, Information and Referrals

  • eHeadspace. 1800 650 890. Open 9am-1am daily (AEST).
  • Kids Helpline. 1800 55 1800. Phone support is there all day, every day. Online support is open from 8am-midnight every day (AEST).
  • Lifeline. 13 11 14. Phone support for all issues, for people of all ages.

1 https://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/understand-eating-disorders/

2 Talbot, C.V., Gavin, J., van Steen, T. & Morey, Y. 2017. A content analysis of thinspiration, fitsiration, and bonespiration imagery on social media. Journal of eating disorders 2017, 5:40. Accessed on 8 November 2017 at https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-017-0170-2

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