Writing a death sentence: The chat room guide

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Hundreds of teenage girls are logging in every day to talk dieting and weight loss with online ‘friends’. But when does that become a dangerous obsession that actively encourages young girls to develop potentially life threatening eating disorders?

It seems unthinkable to the average person that such things are allowed to exist unmonitored and uncensored and yet with a few clicks of a mouse a whole subculture of angst and issue-ridden teens discussing their eating disorders is displayed on your screen.

There are forums for everything nowadays it seems from bee-keeping to wine tasting but one that actually allows members to indulge in their problem as if the rest of the word is abnormal and oblivious is surely not a healthy past time.

Although the web communities do not go as far as condoning eating disorders, it certainly encourages those who already suffer – with members swapping tips on how to lose those extra few pounds and expressing sympathy for the girl who had ‘ballooned’ to 110 pounds.

Of course there are plenty more shocking and sinister things that one can access online nowadays but with eating disorders affecting almost one in every twenty five people aged between 16 and 25 and being such a contemporary issue, it would seem that such forums would be better exchanged with support and advice of a more constructive nature. Naturally this advice and counsel is also readily available and with so many chat rooms and forums now established I expect it is near impossible to vet all of them for suitability. However, with advice such as: ‘If you do not suffer from ADHD, take Ritalin as it speeds up your metabolism and suppresses your appetite’ readily being dished out, perhaps there comes a point where censoring is a requirement – especially when the reply to the comment reads: ‘Great, thanks. My boyfriend takes Ritalin so I can get some of his meds no problem’.

It is fair to say that girls (for it is mainly girls who post on the forums) who do suffer from anorexia or bulimia often find it helpful to chat openly about their problems and share their thoughts but with no forum adjudicator as such or any method of monitoring postings, the forum members are happily exchanging their tips for a quicker route to hospital being drip-fed.

The eating disorders (referred to as EDs) are also given the terms of ‘ana’ (for anorexia) and ‘mia’ (for bulimia), which is as good as referring to them as close friends. This euphemised terminology, this softening around the edges takes away from the cold, hard reality that these people are ill and need help. If anything these ‘ana’ communities with members whose names are anything from ‘skin and bone’ to ‘six stone dream’ and that show images of half starved models, comfort these girls into believing that it is acceptable for them to live like this.

Judging from the quantity of forums on this topic and the number of postings, these girls spend every spare minute logged on, proudly hammering out their 200 calorie a day food diary for the world to see. I realise that it is a common trait of some anorexia sufferers to want to gloat over their weight loss and brag about the food they have managed not to eat that day – or in the case of a bulimic – how successfully they purged after dinner, but it is truly disturbing to read their comments, proudly stating how many times they passed out earlier or how after popping half a packet of ‘flushers’ (laxatives), they had been puking up ‘green stuff’ most of the day because they had had nothing to eat.

Most web communities of this type are accessed through online journals where account holders can register ‘interests’ in certain topics and then become members of communities dealing with these matters.
The live journal or blog – a web-based, free to view diary – is a modern day phenomenon but is a well established, fascinating online under world – once again primarily fed by fifteen year old girls flaunting their troubles and hoping to appear profound in their quoting of song lyrics to convey their ‘inner suffering’.

I am a true believer of getting things off your chest and these journals are a good a vehicle as any for an emotional outlet but as this trend grows and a larger number of people are affected by it, should a certain level of censorship be required on these forums or should we let them be and take a no interference approach, for after all, it is their lives and who a re we to control what they say about it? For many we are already an overly protective ‘nanny state’.

It is not the diaries we should be checking – that would be a total breach of privacy – but on a public web community, an overseeing eye, a professional counsellor perhaps would be a starting point and the question is: Where do you draw the line between a helpful, informative forum and a harmful and quite frankly dangerous one?

Perhaps we need to think twice about letting our teens set up and enrol in web communities which could result in their parents signing their death certificates.