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Posted 08.08.06

 
 
   

MU Study Confirms Negative Effect of Pro-Anorexia Web Sites

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The creation of the Internet has provided the ability to instantly connect with anyone, anywhere. Many young women are now using that connection to find information about a dangerous and deadly psychological disorder - anorexia nervosa. Currently, there are more than 400 pro-anorexia, often referred to as "pro-ana," Web sites that provide women tips on ways to purge and starve themselves, as well as how to hide the disorder from family and friends. Many observers have long suspected the negative effects these Web sites have on those who view them. Research by a faculty member and doctoral student at the University of Missouri-Columbia now offers scientific data to support that claim.

Anna Bardone-Cone."The effects of pro-ana Web sites are important to understand because these Web sites are encouraging anorexic attitudes and behaviors," said Anna Bardone-Cone, assistant professor of clinical psychology in the College of Arts and Science. "This study will help clinicians and others who treat patients with anorexia nervosa by giving them information they can share with their patients about the negative effects of these Web sites."

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Bardone-Cone and Kamila Cass, a clinical psychology doctoral student, conducted a study of 24 women between the ages of 18 and 20 to determine the impact of viewing pro-ana sites. The study, a pilot for a larger one recently completed and awaiting publication, randomly assigned the participants to view one of three Web sites created by the researchers: a prototypical pro-ana site, a fashion site featuring average-sized models and a home décor site. Before being exposed to the Web sites, the researchers measured psychological factors such as mood, self-esteem and how participants viewed their weight.

These factors were again measured after participants viewed the Web sites. Among those who viewed the fashion and home décor Web sites, Bardone-Cone and Cass found little to no change. However, among participants who viewed the pro-ana Web site, the researchers noticed substantially negative changes. In particular, only women who viewed the pro-ana Web sites were affected negatively by experiencing worse mood, lower self-esteem and increased feelings of being overweight.

"These changes were expected," Cass said. "These Web sites are startling and horrifying in what they say and depict. There's nowhere else that you get images of really thin women combined with the suggestion that you should diet in a really unhealthy way."

The researchers said pro-ana Web sites contain images of extremely thin women, chat rooms and blogs for users to chronicle their anorexic practices as well as counsel others with the disease on how to further lose weight. They said messages posted and exchanged on these Web sites have created a community in which women think they have found support, but this support can come at an extremely high cost. Anorexia is the most deadly psychological disorder with about 10 percent of those afflicted by the disease dying each year, Bardone-Cone said.

Bardone-Cone suggests parents block pro-ana content on their home computer and place the computer in a public area of the house to keep children from visiting these Web sites. She also recommends parents talk with their children, especially young girls, about body image and the importance of healthy eating habits.

The study, "Investigating the Impact of Pro-Anorexia Websites: A Pilot Study," was published in July in European Eating Disorders Review.

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