We're always seeking to enhance healthcare choices under the assumption that the more information we have, the more control over our health we exercise, the better off we'll be. Some of the choices we make are questionable: following fad diets or quack cures; modifying our bodies with tattoos, implants or sex changes; leading sedentary lives filled with trans-fats and sugared colas. Western society tolerates the odd choices, preferring more information rather than less, but sometimes information can kill us.
A pilot study published in the journal Pediatrics, "Surfing for Thinness", examined adolescents use of web sites that promote anorexia and bulimia. (These sites are often called pro-ana and pro-mia sites. See one logo at left.) The study estimates that there are approximately 500 pro-eating disorder (pro-ED) web sites, outnumbering the anti-ED/pro-recovery sites about 5 to 1. Like the health-interested web user population at large, up to two-thirds of adolescent girls surf the web for health information, nearly half looking for ways to lose weight. In a survey of teens, 96% said they learned new weight loss or purging techniques from the pro-ED sites. (The study also noted that some web sites also influence drug use in youth and promote anti-health behaviors such as self-injury, suicide, and smoking.)
Obviously, parents have to be aware of their kids' Internet use and be alert to signs of eating disorders in general. At About.com, Dr. Vincent Iannelli offers some advice to parents. But after the child is grown, there's no way to stop her or him from surfing sites that promote bad health. Authorities in Madrid recently shut down a pro-anorexia web site as a hazard to children, but the free-wheeling information economy of the global Internet won't always be there to save us. We'll have to be sure we make the right health choices.