Thousands of young girls are using dangerous 'pro-ana' websites that encourage users to 'starve for perfection'.
According to a new report, Virtually Anorexic - Where's The Harm?, supported by eating disorder charity beat and internet safety organisation Childnet International, hundreds of websites that encourage extreme dieting and eating disorders are being used with alarming regularity.
The research by University Campus Suffolk notes how 'pro-ana' sites, which promote the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, encourage weight loss via dieting competitions, advocate diets of just 400-500 calories per day and champion "thinspiration" (where images of celebrities such as Victoria Beckham and Keira Knightley are used to idealise a certain look).
According to the report, these websites are extremely influential. Many boast communities of thousands of members, with forums and chat rooms available to share tips to hide eating disorders and find an "anabuddy" for support.
According to the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence, 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, of which around 11% are male
Natasha Devon, co-founder of Body Gossip, a campaign that promotes natural, healthy and realistic beauty, said that although the intentions of sites are not always intended to be damaging, the emotional state and vulnerability of users often leads to mutual encouragement.
She told HuffPost UK Lifestyle: "People assume they would automatically know if they were on a pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia website. The press often portrays them as being quite obvious in their intention.
"The reality is that quite often they are just support groups set up on social networking sites by people with the best intentions, but they attract users who are unwell and are completely unregulated.
"It's important to remember that eating disorders are a mental illness. Even if you're on an 'extreme diet' or training regime you're not in the best frame of mind. People who still struggle are certainly not in a position to be giving advice to others. Often users of these support groups simply egg each other on."
In a statement, Dr Emma Bond, author of the report and senior lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies at University Campus Suffolk (UCS) outlined her recommendations for change:
“People, especially parents and teachers need to increase their awareness so that young people can be helped. We need to encourage young people to develop critical media literacy skills and the media should be more responsible in not publishing pictures of very thin models and celebrities because young people wish to emulate them.
"Eating disorders are not going away, if anything they are becoming more common. We need to alert people to the dangers of harmful content on the Internet. Everyone needs to understand better the risks online and the harm that eating disorders can do to young people”
The report was funded by social investor Nominet Trust.