Research uncovers a secret society connecting through the Internet

Feb 22, 2011

It can be a helpless and heartbreaking situation for families as they try to confront a family member with an eating disorder. What they may not know is that there's a society on the Internet that is dedicated to thwarting any recovery from this dangerous and possibly fatal behavior.

University of Cincinnati communication researchers are reporting on a new type of social support group as social networks grow on the Web. This emerging Online Negative Enabling Support Group (ONESG) surrounding the pro-anorexia movement is reported in the current issue of the journal, New Media & Society.

Members of this society embrace as a choice rather than acknowledging it as an illness. The ONESG pro-anorexia movement reflects four themes and uses several communication strategies to encourage anorexics to embrace their harmful and dangerous impulses, writes lead author Stephen M. Haas, a UC associate professor of communication. The themes are:

  • Staying "true" to the anorexia movement – Forums and blogs invite members to discuss eating, binging and exercising, an "online confessional" of sorts where members can confess their guilt if they feel they have eaten too much or have not exercised enough to stay inline with the movement.
  • Promoting self-loathing strategies – Websites encourage communications that not only involving loathing of the physical body, but also of one's inner being in confessing feelings of worthlessness and weakness. These negative rants are embraced by other visitors – a communication technique the authors say is unique to this community. Messages are accepted and not contradicted, building a shared identity in acknowledging each others' failures.
  • Pro-anorexia advising – The two most common forms of advice involve dieting and dealing with confrontations from non-anorexics, such as family members who try to encourage healthy eating.
  • Pro-anorexia encouragement – The fourth communication theme uncovered in these social networks involves encouragement. This can involve affectionate messages that foster group intimacy, offer tips and techniques to encourage anorexic behavior, and form a barrier against the disapproval of non-anorexic "outsiders."
In ONESG communications, there was a common ambivalence between self-loathing and self-encouragement. "Embracing the ambivalence of self-loathing and self-encouragement is an important strategy because it illustrates the inner turmoil that resides within pro-anorexia participants," the authors write. "They cling relentlessly to the idea that achieving a certain level of thinness will somehow remedy their feelings of worthlessness and undesirability; however, the means by which they attain this sense of value and belonging is stigmatized and deemed undesirable."

The researchers say this secret social network is strengthened by the anonymity of the Internet, which allows the exchange of extreme views. Interactions co-construct potentially dangerous, negative behaviors in a positive way that allows new, positive identities to be created. Affectionate messages create a bonding experience.

The authors write that as new social media emerges, it will be even more important to understand their role and impact on ONESGs. They add that understanding these communication strategies may also serve as a useful tool to break down obstacles to life-saving therapy.

"By gaining deeper insight, we can potentially increase our efforts to help those whose online interactions revolve around 'communicating thin,'" the authors write.

The researchers gathered their data by exploring general sites and pro-anorexia specific websites that allowed public access. The websites and blogs were researched over a period dating from October 2006 to May 2007. The collected data was believed to be primarily from Caucasian women between the ages of 13 and 26.

Explore further: Video games could dramatically streamline educational research

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Study reveals the heavy toll anorexia takes on families

Apr 08, 2008

While the primary focus of media attention and medical treatment is the individual's battle with anorexia nervosa, research from University of Western Sydney reveals that anorexia can have a long term impact on the physical, ...

Marking anorexia with a brain protein

Jun 23, 2009

Eating disorders are frequently seen as psychological or societal diseases, but do they have an underlying biological cause? A new study shows that the levels of a brain protein differ between healthy and anorexic women.

Recommended for you

Scholar tracks the changing world of gay sexuality

11 hours ago

With same-sex marriage now legalized in 19 states and laws making it impossible to ban homosexuals from serving in the military, gay, lesbian and bisexual people are now enjoying more freedoms and rights than ever before.

User comments : 10

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

fmfbrestel
3 / 5 (2) Feb 22, 2011
Just another symptom of a dysfunctional society that only cares about the symptoms of dysfunction.

Instead of looking at how our society views body image and the loosening of the social bonds of family. Instead of looking at the individual and showing empathy instead of labeling and judging.

Our society is sick, and studying "ONESG's" will do nothing to make it better -- but it might distract you into thinking we care.
JRDarby
1 / 5 (2) Feb 22, 2011
They're just now finding out about this?
Bob_B
1.2 / 5 (5) Feb 22, 2011
Our society is sick because there are too many people on the planet, imho. Sure we can always pack more people in those really unlivable areas and watch them fight it out for the last bit of water in their region. Or maybe rare earths is worth fighting for. Or maybe some food would even be worth fighting for.

The bottom line: let them die. If they are that stupid then the world does not need them.

Ricochet
1 / 5 (2) Feb 22, 2011
Personally, I blame the parents who don't program their children with the proper protections against the media's superficial teachings that the only way to perfection is with a size 0 dress, neverminding the fact that the ribs poke through the skin every now and then, and a strong breeze can be a harrowing event that can result with major spacial displacement and broken bones...

On the other side of the coin, you can join in on the fun with rib-counting parties and such.
Ricochet
1 / 5 (3) Feb 22, 2011
Our society is sick because there are too many people on the planet, imho. Sure we can always pack more people in those really unlivable areas and watch them fight it out for the last bit of water in their region. Or maybe rare earths is worth fighting for. Or maybe some food would even be worth fighting for.

The bottom line: let them die. If they are that stupid then the world does not need them.


We could just put them in those areas where food is scarce... it's not like they're going to eat much anyway...
jscroft
3.9 / 5 (7) Feb 22, 2011
The sexual tastes of human men are optimized through millions of years of evolution to reflect a certain physical reality. Consequently, men generally prefer women who are trim, athletic, and carry their reserve fat in reproductively advantageous locations. See Playboy, Sports Illustrated, or Maxim magazines if you disagree.

Oh, runway models? Most men don't give a rip about starving, waifish runway models. We like SWIMSUIT models, who don't suffer from anorexia if they like to work.

Unfortunately, open appreciation of women by men is discouraged. We're "sexist," we "objectify women," blah, blah, blah. As a result, women have no option but to receive feedback regarding their attractiveness from other women, who PLAINLY don't know what they're talking about. If they did, there would BE no secret online support groups for anorexia, which is frigging gross no matter how you cut it.

Stupid feminists have done this to themselves, and their daughters are paying the price.
lexington
4 / 5 (5) Feb 22, 2011
At first I thought the article was sickening. Then I read the comments.
Caliban
1 / 5 (2) Feb 22, 2011
A sad state of affairs, indeed. A number of different, but related factors feed into this.
Certainly a lack of parental support and inculcation of a sense of self-worth, and the ability to think independently and rationally don't help.
Nor does the constant bombardment of media that equate style/(body)image with the REAL substance and value of being a human, and elevating that image to the point of being unattainable(realistically speaking)for most people.

To name just a couple.

Saying that this is the fault of feminism is a gross oversimplification. How do you explain the cultural/media stereotypes of what makes a man attractive and valuable? They are equally suspect, even when they are not outright false.

This anorexia ONESGis just one more example of people embracing the most self-destructive lie(s) that is within their grasp, and relying on the crutch of groupthink to justify behavior and belief that are -in very rel ways- harmful to both themselves and others.
zafouf
5 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2011
Feminists actually encourage women to accept their bodies as they are. Sometimes to an extent that may be destructive, like I don't think that women who are fat should be encouraged to give up on losing weight.
Anorexia is often a dysfunctional protest against the female role, against being over-controlled as a female person, being deprived of choices. Girls get more body fat as they turn into women, and becoming a woman means bad things like losing their freedom to a man, often. They try to counter this by being thin. It's a way of avoiding being sexual and being dominated by a man.
Feminism can help counter this by giving women a more realistic way to get control and autonomy, and encouraging women to assert themselves with men, so hopefully they can have a sexual relationship without being dominated.
Feminists tend NOT to be anorexic.
Nik_2213
not rated yet Feb 23, 2011
In my limited experience, the anorexia was a reaction to a desperate lack of self-worth: The subject 'took control of her life' by starving herself. There was more involved: Incredibly, at barely five stone, she thought she was *FAT* unto obese...

Took a partner's quiet, uncritical love plus, IMHO, zinc supplement to reprogram her cells, to restore her self image.

FWIW, you never truly recover from anorexia / bulimia: The best you can hope for is decades of remission...