Whilst this has allowed humanity to come together in a new and exciting way, it also offers a platform for the uncontrolled propagation and sharing of harmful ideas to the wider community.
Among the most dangerous are internet communities that, like many magazine and television advertisements, perpetuate the idea that thin is beautiful, which can encourage an unhealthy obsession with body image.
Young girls in particular are at risk at being influenced by advertisements and pictures of celebrities into believing that they have to be thin to be beautiful. Unfortunately, despite efforts to change this misconception, it is a view that is still widely held.
Visitors to popular social media sites such as Instagram can use hashtags to take them directly to pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia content. Through visiting these communities many at risk individuals are able to find new ways to diet and purge, potentially transforming a minor problem into a full blown eating disorder. Perhaps then, it is no coincidence that there has been a 15% increase in diagnosed eating disorders since the year 2000 and a 110% increase in the number of children seeking help within the past three years.
The reality is that eating disorders are far from glamorous and the mortality rate is higher than any other mental illness. Approximately 20% of those suffering from anorexia die prematurely from, among other problems, heart conditions and suicide related to their anorexia.
Those wanting to help eating disorder sufferers, however, have not been idle. Their pressure has led to some social media sites taking action to prevent inappropriate hashtags from being searchable. This has not proved as successful as might have been hoped so they are using these hashtags against themselves to flood the dangerous Internet communities with content challenging their ideas.
For women especially, how they look has a huge impact on their well being and self-esteem, so it is vital to dispel the idea that thin is good. Controlling access to harmful Internet communities will help keep eating disorder sufferers from those who support their behaviour and help keep others from falling victim to the “thin is beautiful” propaganda. The idea that they don’t have to be thin can be life changing — and life saving.
But control of the Internet is only part of the solution. Advertisers — the fashion and the cosmetic industries, in particular — also have to behave more responsibly and play their part in changing perceptions and becoming a more positive influence on those susceptible to their messages. As in all things, prevention is better than cure.
With the damage done, however, it is vital that eating disorder sufferers seek actual professional help as early as possible. If they have the right support from family and friends too, the prognosis for those seeking help is positive: 34% will see an improvement in their symptoms and 46% of anorexia nervosa sufferers will recover fully.