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Shared suffering over the net: self-help or incentive?
Anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. Around 20 percent of all teenagers between the ages of 11 and 17 show signs of an eating disorder. Many sufferers share their suffering on the Internet or look at the suffering stories of other sufferers. Is this beneficial or counterproductive for getting out of the disease?
Everyone finds a peer group online. There are also contributions on affected people on eating disorders on social media who want to encourage healing. But is that helpful? Or dangerous?
Those affected tell their stories
Avocado Toast, Sushi - Drinking Food? Whoever lands on Isabelle's Instagram profile for the first time may think he is on a food blog. The description provides clarity: "University student, do my best to overcome my anorexia," it says in English. Isabelle is 24 years old and has an eating disorder. "Here I can tell my story," Isabelle says of her profile.
Diary and support group
Isabelle's story and that of her eating disorder is one with ups and downs. On the "lifeof.isi" account, she gives daily updates on her life between full-time studies and eating disorders. At the end of 2018, Isabelle passed out several times and was hospitalized. She took her followers with her. Many of them have an eating disorder themselves. Isabelle exchanges tips with them, they give each other sympathy. "A large, uncontrollable self-help group," is why she calls her account.
Forums about eating disorders are popular
Content on dealing with eating disorders is constantly increasing on social media, says Silke Naab, chief physician of the youth department of the Schön Klinik Roseneck. She sees advantages and disadvantages in the platforms: Instagrammer like Isabelle served on the one hand as an identification figure. It can be very motivating to see that those affected continue to fight the disease despite the setbacks. But Naab also warns: As soon as the eating disorder is glorified, followers should definitely refrain from the profile.
When an illness becomes a lifestyle
Glorify the eating disorder - that's exactly what happens in Pro-Ana or Pro-Mia forums. "This makes the disease a lifestyle," says Silja Vocks, President of the German Society for Eating Disorders and Professor of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the University of Osnabrück. Pro-Ana is short for pro anorexia, i.e. anorexia, Pro-Mia stands for pro bulimia.
Isabelle knows from her own experience how dangerous pro-ana groups are. At the age of 17, she had “really slipped into the eating disorder” via such a group on a messenger service, says the now 24-year-old. The goal was to lose 500 grams every week. Isabelle lost weight and always went to bed with the fear of not waking up the next morning. Then she admitted that things couldn't go on like this.
Young women are mostly affected
According to the Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA), three to five percent of people in Germany have an eating disorder. These include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Similar to bulimia, those affected have eating attacks, but do not vomit afterwards. Often, however, the disease would appear as a mixed form.
About a fifth of the children and adolescents showed symptoms of an eating disorder. Men are affected far less often than women, according to the BZgA. Isabelle knows that she does not give her 1200 followers on her profile any instructions on how to cure an eating disorder: "I'm still in the process of finding my final way out of the disease".
Relapses are not excluded
Although Isabelle has been battling the disease for years and was not underweight for long periods, she has experienced relapses over and over again - just like a year ago. The relapse continues to this day. Instagram then gives her strength. Here she meets people who have a similar story and “understand better” than people without an eating disorder, says Isabelle.
Even if the content can be very helpful for followers - especially those who are still deeply ill, Naab advises against sharing their story online. "It's a relatively anonymous space where they share very personal information without knowing how others are using it."
Instagram must not be a parallel world
People with anorexia nervosa, anorexia, are often socially isolated and find the desired echo on social media, says Silja Vocks. This does not solve the problem, Naab warns: “It is not just a matter of sharing my worries and fears on the Internet, I have to experience this in real life too. It always becomes difficult when there is a parallel world. ”Connecting with others via Instagram could be a good first step, says the doctor.
Naab advises people who find symptoms of an eating disorder in a relative to seek the conversation. However, the topic is often shameful for those affected. Therefore, the offer to speak to another confidant or a therapist can often help. Parents should find out which media their children use. An open discussion could also help here.
Isabelle has blocked almost all of her friends on Instagram - partly because she doesn't want to "worry" them too much. The exchange with the followers is more informal. "I'm not directly addressing a person as it would be in contact with a friend." The followers who want to deal with it do it. "And if not, then not." (Vb; source: Anne Pollmann, dpa)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek
- Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA): How common are eating disorders? (Call: 05.02.2020), bzga-essstoerungen.de