Bad Reality: Eating Disorders on YouTube

Anorexia promotion and support videos found on YouTube

February 27, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) If you search hard enough, the Internet has what you're looking for. But people with anorexia may not have to look too hard to find videos promoting their eating disorder.

In a recent study, researchers typed eating disorder keywords into the search box on the video website, YouTube.

While the majority of videos were informative about eating disorders, nearly one out of three promoted an eating disorder to viewers.

These findings suggest that people may be getting the wrong message and practicing unhealthy eating disordered habits as a result.

"Talk to a therapist about any anorexia symptoms."

Shabbir Syed-Abdul, MD, MSc, from Taipei Medical University and National Yang Ming University in Taiwan, worked with fellow scientists from Norway and the United States to investigate misleading health information on eating disorders in Internet videos.

YouTube is a website where people can upload any type of video they want to share with the public. Misleading health information has been uploaded to YouTube in the past, including videos that promote eating disorders as healthy.

For this study, researchers looked through YouTube video archives for any video concerning anorexia on October 10, 2011.

The following keywords were searched on YouTube:

  • "Anorexia" (an eating disorder defined by an obsession with being thin through starvation and/or over exercising)
  • "Anorexia nervosa" (full clinical term for anorexia)
  • "Proana" (slang term for “promoting anorexia”) 
  • "Thinspo" (short for “thinspiration,” which refers to pictures of very thin people meant to motivate people towards weight loss or underweight maintenance)

A total of 140 videos adding up to about 11 hours were found.

After watching the videos, researcher found 29 percent were pro-anorexia, 56 percent were informative about anorexia and 15 percent didn’t quite fit into a category.

On YouTube, people who watch videos can leave public comments about the video. The researchers found three times the public favor for the pro-anorexia videos than the informative videos.

“Efforts should focus on raising awareness, particularly among teenagers, about the trustworthiness of online information about beauty and healthy lifestyles,” the authors said.

The authors recommended video websites like YouTube should continue to develop software filters to detect and remove pro-anorexia content from their website before they become popular.

They also recommended that health authorities should create videos with celebrities and models that are anti-anorexia and pro-healthy lifestyle to reach a wider audience.

This study was published in February in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

The National Science Council and the Department of Health in Taiwan, Taipei Medical University, a US Department of Homeland Security Career Development Grant and the Research Council of Norway supported funding for this project. No conflicts of interest were declared.