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Over 35 Years of Eating Disorder Specialty Practice
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Eating Disorder Specialist

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Abigail Natenshon, MA, LCSW, GCFP
Telephone 847-432-1795
Fax: 847-266-9233
Highland Park, Illinois 60035
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Are Pro-Anorexic Web Sites A Danger to Your Child?

A young girl feels anxious and self-hating because, despite efforts to lose weight, she feels fat. Seeking insights, tips on more effective ways to weight loss, and support for behaviors and attitudes that may be extreme or dysfunctional, she logs on to one of the upwards of 400 controversial pro-anorexic web sites on the internet that instruct both dyed- in- the- wool and “wannabe” anorexics how to become the best anorexics they can be. Providing a forum for exchanging and picking up tips, support, encouragement, and validation for self-abusive behaviors, these sites offer a sense of community and belonging as they provide an incentive for the onset and perpetuation of eating disorders. 

The continuing existence of these sites, despite their having been banned by some of the larger search engines, demonstrates the creative tenacity and dedication of girls in search of disease, each other, and the sense of acceptance, pride and mastery they achieve through excelling at their behaviors and finding converts. 

I have personally known young women through my practice whose eating disorders were triggered by participation in pro-anorexic sites, which encouraged the act of purging in the interest of losing weight. These web-inspired behaviors have, in turn led to eating disorders that have been disruptive to lives of individuals and families, which take a heavy toll on physical health, emotional well-being and the pocketbook.

What can be done?
The most potent source of prevention for these problems comes from the home, from parental modeling of healthy values and healthy eating lifestyle for their children. Eating disorders are the misuse of food to resolve emotional problems. When parents teach kids to recognize their feelings honestly and fully, to address and solve problems effectively, and to act on getting their needs met constructively, children will have little need or inclination to turn to an eating disorder as a solution, even if they are disposed in that direction through genetics or personality.

Nature abhors a vacuum. When parents do not step up to address issues and answer children’s questions, (and in fact, to help kids know what kinds of questions they need to be asking) kids will turn to external forces to fill themselves up, to get their needs met. They will turn to peers, to anyone, in fact, who will pay them the attention they seek and lend them credence. 

I believe that all too frequently children innocently consult the Internet in search of answers to important questions that are of concern to them. In the process of seeking information, they simply find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. It can be just that arbitrary. As a wholesome alternative for kids seeking information through the Internet, I have created a web site for children between the ages of 7 and 17 to answer their questions and speak to their concerns about healthy eating, healthy weight management and body image concerns. The website,empoweredkidZ is filled with articles, exercises and tests to stimulate young people to come to know themselves and their eating behaviors better. It invites youngsters to write to me personally for professional consultation via email with questions that they may have been embarrassed to ask anyone else or ever before.

Parents need to become aware when this type of media is influencing their children. 

Parents need to watch for signs of troubling influences. 

  • Kids may begin to diet or restrict certain food groups. 
  • They may worry about becoming fat even when they are thin,
  • They may become preoccupied with calorie counting or other fat-phobic behaviors, 
  • Lose weight rapidly, 
  • Make excuses not to eat meals together with the family, 
  • Disappear into the bathroom after eating, 
  • Refuse to go places where they may be required to eat, 
  • Carry their own food with them to social events
  • Feel reluctant to attend family dinners or other family functions
  • Spend an inordinate amount of time at the computer. 

What message can parents send to their girls to counteract the negative messages online?

Parents need to send active and purposeful messages to their children, particularly when they observe their child falling off course through what appear to be misconceptions or questionable eating attitudes and behaviors. They need to teach children that: 

  • The best way to be thin and stay thin is to eat healthfully....to eat
    nutritious foods, including at least three meals a day, including all of the food groups.
  • Kids should understand that there are no bad foods, as long as foods are
    eaten in moderation. 
  • If a youngster needs to lose weight, the best way to do so is to eat differently, not less. Kids need to understand that diets are the worst way to lose weight and that childhood diets can be a precursor to adult obesity.
  • Parents are prepared to help. They can and will be available to listen and to support; doing whatever it takes to mentor and save their child in danger.
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