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Despite social media bans of "pro-ana" websites, pages persist


(CBS News) Even though social media sites are taking a strong stance against websites that promote eating disorders, the pages don't seem to be going anywhere.

On one blog covered with pro-ana tags found on a popular site, a woman gives a play-by-play of a three day fast she's partaking in. During one of the days, the blogger wrote she consumed only tea, vitamins, and a gallon of water.

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"I'm super psyched to weigh in," the blogger wrote. "If I can make it til noon Friday I may extend it through the weekend!" Other followers offered support and said they'd join in the weight loss attempt.

While the activity of fasting alone isn't a major cause for alarm, the fact that her messages are posted in conjunction of images of frail women (known as "thinspiration"), positive mantras promoting weight loss and other self-loathing notes about being "pathetic" and having no friends, the blog quickly becomes an online snapshot of a person dealing with an eating disorder.

Welcome on the world of "pro-ana" (pro-anorexia) or "pro-mia" (pro-bulimia) sites, where one person's mental disorder suddenly becomes a community supported activity. According to Dr. Andrea Vazzana, clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry and psychiatry at New York University, while evidence shows that even looking once at these sites can raise an individual's body dissatisfaction, pro-ana pages aren't likely to cause an eating disorder. But for those who have an eating disorder to begin with, these websites can be deadly.

"A lot of times people with eating disorders use these sites as a means of seeking support," Vazzana tells HeathPop.

While the idea of online websites promoting pro-ana, pro-mia and thinspiration is not a new, the popularity of online blogging sites like Tumblr and Pinterest has made it easier for those with the ED to organize online. Simply tag your post with one of the hashtags on Tumblr, and you automatically get linked to other men and women who feel the same way. Create a board on Pinterest of weight loss tips and images of skinny models, and you have a one-stop site to share with others with your same issues.

In February, Tumblr wrote on their blog that they were adopting a no "self-harm" policy, meaning they would shut down sites that promoted eating disorders. Pinterest soon followed suit on March 27 by updating its terms of services to include banning material that "creates a risk of harm, emotional distress, death disability, disfigurement or physical or mental illness to any person." But a quick online search for these terms shows that these sites exist, either because they were created recently and have yet to be taken down or because the banned user created a different account that has yet to be found by the authorities.

"They are still finding a way with all these regulations," Vazzana says. "Even with all the regulations, Tumblr and Pinterest may try, but they'll get the sites back running under a different ISP."

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders Inc., it is estimated that 24 million Americans have an eating disorder, but only one out of 10 will receive treatment. Currently, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. One in 200 U.S. women suffers from anorexia, and two to three out of 100 women will have bulimia, the South Carolina Department of Mental Health reported.

Pro-ana and pro-mia sites are especially damaging for young children, Vazzana says. Studies reveal that children as young as 12 are accessing these sites. "They are particularly prone to buying into these websites and their bodies are changing at this time when they are trying to develop a better sense of identity and sense of sell-social comparison."

Vazzana points out that not all "thinspiration" sites are a bad thing. For those who may need some motivation to lose weight, these web communities can help them reach that goal. Websites like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers often post weight loss pictures and dieting tips. The problem occurs when these sites promote images of women who are too thin or share "unhealthy" tips on how to lose weight, such as using laxatives or eating way below the recommended amount of daily calories. "They take it to an extreme," she says.

Most of the time in the pro-ana or pro-mia movements don't believe the have a disorder, but instead are choosing to live this lifestyle by making a choice to not eat indulgently. Vazzana says oftentimes the person develops an eating disorder because they are trying to control their life, but unfortunately it begins to control them. About 50 percent of people with an eating disorder also meet the criteria for depression, according to the association. Finding an online support group helps these people feel like they are not alone and doing the right thing.

"Eating disorders are actually very isolating. There's a cult status, but society tends to frown about it," Vazzana explains.

As tempting as it may be, Vazzana says that those with an eating disorder must try to avoid these sites. Parents can set up filters to block them from their children, and she suggests putting the computer in a public area so activity can be monitored.

The National Institute of Mental Health has more on eating disorders.