Teen Use of Eating Disorders Web Sites on the Rise

And parents often unaware children are visiting dangerous sites, study finds

MONDAY, Dec. 4, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Teens with eating disorders often turn to the Web -- sometimes for help with their problem but also for new suggestions on ways to lose weight.

Parents, however, seem largely unaware that their children are using the Internet to visit eating disorder Web sites.

Those are two conclusions from a new study in the December issue of Pediatrics that also found that teens who look for eating disorder information on the Internet are more likely to be hospitalized for their condition than teens who don't turn to the Web.

"People have always picked up and shared dangerous information," said one of the study's authors, Dr. Rebecka Peebles, an instructor of adolescent medicine at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University School of Medicine. "The Internet gives instant access to new and potentially dangerous information kids may not have encountered on their own."

Peebles said this study's findings highlight the need for parents to educate themselves about how to use the Internet and to talk to their children about what they're viewing online.

The Internet, e-mail and instant messaging are popular forms of communication for teens. Children between the ages of 13 and 19 are the group most likely to use the computer, according to background information in the study. Additionally, as many as two-thirds of teenage girls look for health information on the Web.

Some sites provide reliable information. But teens may also stumble across sites with harmful messages. These sites may be run as community forums or chat sites, where teens with eating disorders can exchange ideas and information to reinforce their harmful activities.

For the new study, Peebles, her student Jenny Wilson, and colleagues sent questionnaires regarding Internet use and eating disorder information to the parents of nearly 700 people who had been evaluated for an eating disorder at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital between 1997 and 2004.

One hundred and eighty-two people responded to the survey -- 76 teens and 106 parents.

The good news was that nearly half of all the teens hadn't visited an eating disorder Web site. The bad news was that 41 percent had visited a pro-eating disorder Web site, while 36 percent had visited a pro-recovery Web site. Twenty-five percent had been to both types of sites.

Ninety-six percent of the teens who went to pro-eating disorder sites reported gleaning new weight-loss or purging information from the sites. More alarmingly, 46 percent of those who went to a pro-recovery Web site said they had gained new information about different weight-loss techniques.

About 53 percent of parents knew there were pro-eating disorder Web sites, but just about as many parents thought their children weren't visiting these sites. Only 28 percent had brought up the subject of eating disorder Web sites with their teen. Almost two-thirds of parents were unaware that there were pro-recovery Web sites on the Internet.

Users of pro-eating disorder Web sites were significantly more likely to have required hospitalization than teens who didn't frequent those sites -- 3.9 percent versus 1.1 percent, respectively.

"Kids are using these sites and getting information from them. Parents should be discussing what kind of information they're learning, and it's important for parents to see if the information is accurate," Peebles said.

Dr. Alexander Sackeyfio, an eating disorder specialist at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., said, "This is something that all of us who treat eating disorders struggle with. We want to present information in a way that we hope will inform, but not in a way that might encourage someone to make their symptoms even worse."

But, he added, he doesn't think either type of Web site generates these destructive behaviors in the first place. He pointed out that there is a lot of health misinformation on the Internet and that most people don't follow ill-advised advice they see on the Web.

"But, there are always sensitive ones that will try things they see," Sackeyfio said.

In general, people need to be more aware that eating disorders are severe physical illnesses and that these teens aren't just trying to be manipulative, he said.

Both Peebles and Sackeyfio recommended that parents not deny their children access to the Internet, but instead learn more about what sites they're visiting and talk with them about it.

And, Sackeyfio said, it's crucial to find a health-care professional well-educated in eating disorders and their treatment.

More information

To learn more about possible causes of eating disorders, visit the National Eating Disorders Association.

SOURCES: Rebecka Peebles, M.D., instructor, adolescent medicine, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University School of Medicine, Mountain View, Calif.; Alexander Sackeyfio, M.D., psychiatrist, Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Mich.; December 2006 Pediatrics
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