It is true that when someone is in self-driven recovery from an Eating Disorder like Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder and OSFED, we understand that they do not “choose” to have the disorder – they are compulsive and obsessive about it, and it is not a choice.
However, for many of our kids, they may actually begin their Eating Disorder as an experiment, a choice, and they can find the How To manuals and inspiration right on their phones. This alarming fact has been observed as a unique factor in modern-day Eating Disorder treatment.
While it used to be that treatment centers were considered “educational opportunities” for clients to learn new eating disorder behaviors, today all of the education and support they need is at their fingertips – no face-to-face interaction is necessary.
Eating Disorders and the Pitcher Plant
To understand why the ability to find inspiration and support for Eating Disorders online is so dangerous, we can look at the story of the carnivorous pitcher plant, which has been used as an analogy for substance addiction.
The pitcher plant eats insects, small rodents, and reptiles. It emits a tasty smell that is incredibly appealing to its prey. The bee chooses the pitcher plant, and lands on the edge, circling the top of the flower and sucking up all the delicious goodness that the plant offers.
But, without noticing it, the bee starts slipping down the tube of the plant. It’s enjoying the food so much that it barely notices that it’s going deeper and deeper. It believes that its wings will save it when the time comes to make the choice to fly away. But the plant is sticky and slippery, and the insect slips further and further down the tube until it becomes stuck forever in a gooey mess at the bottom. And then all choice is gone.
Like the Pitcher Plant, Eating Disorders are compelling when a young person first finds them. Using online communities, kids can find identity at a time when self-perception is key. They can find a community at a time when belonging is everything. They can find a way to take control at a time when they have very little control.
#fitspo, #thinspo and other pro-ED media
Our kids have tremendous access to pro-ED media on their phones. Their phones provide them with Inspiration, How-to, Encouragement, and Community.
Inspiration: photos of very thin people and people who are “successful” at having an Eating Disorder. Often these are disguised as “trying to recover” posts so they won’t be tagged and removed, but they serve as tremendous inspiration to someone on the edge of an Eating Disorder.
How-to: articles, posts and details about how food can be avoided, how to ignore hunger signals, how to hide an Eating Disorder, and a broad variety of How-to information is available with a simple search. Deeper information can be found with very little probing below the surface.
Encouragement: Posters on social media often talk about exciting moments of achieving Eating Disorder “success.” These posters will talk about how happy they are to be small, to have avoided detection, and to have fought back against treatment interventions, and commenters will respond with praise, support, and encouragement.
Community: Communities abound where people can join conversations about the ins and outs of Eating Disorders, and provide each other with personal inspiration, encouragement and tips and tricks. Most of all, these communities provide a sense of belonging to a tribe of like-minded people who understand the quest to “choose” an Eating Disorder.
Understanding the allure of the #proED sites
The biggest challenge we face is that our children are finding what they need: Inspiration, Encouragement, and Community on their phones. This could be a great thing, but when it comes to Eating Disorders, it is not good at all.
The media our children consume on their phones provides opportunities for falling deeply into an Eating Disorder. We had no such exposure to Eating Disorders. While we may have known a friend who had an Eating Disorder, we did not have access to message boards and support groups that could teach us everything we wanted to know about pursuing and maintaining an Eating Disorder.
Our kids are the “test generation” of smartphones. They are the first teens to go through adolescence with a computer in their hands, and yet we have very few protections to protect them from the potential dangers online. In fact, most of the time we don’t even know about the dangers!
It’s time for us to get educated about the damage the Internet can do to our children who are at risk of or already have an Eating Disorder. We must educate ourselves about the dangerous sense of community our kids can find on their phones, and help them find healthy, offline communities that will better support them in healing from their Eating Disorders.
Because, just like the Pitcher Plant, our kids may begin an Eating Disorder as a choice, but, once stuck, it is a very difficult thing to escape.