- Online communities with eating disorders are often targeted by sexual predators.
- Experts spoke to Insider about the link between eating disorders and care.
- Warning: This story is about eating disorders and sexual violence.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more news.
The link between eating disorders and care is one that Tara Maguire, a childhood sexual abuse survivor, knows well. She told Insider that she realized she always had a dysfunctional relationship with food when she went into therapy.
“Food was the only thing I had control over,” she said. “I couldn’t control what happened to my body, but I could control what got into my body. So I think that definitely creates a big vulnerability.”
The link is so sharp that experts say predators often search for victims by targeting websites and forums where young people talk about eating disorders.
As Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross, an expert on eating disorders and addictions and executive director of an online food and body image education program called The Anchor Program, told the Insider, “If you’re a predator, that’s exactly where you’d like to go.”
Communities with eating disorders offer fertile ground for predators
Every iteration of social media has been plagued by diet-banning content, from micro-blog sites like Tumblr in its peak in 2010, to Instagram and TikTok today.
These so-called “pro-ana” – or “pro-anorexia” – communities are places where people share pictures or videos that are used as an “inspirational” tool for even greater weight loss.
“It’s almost a religion,” Todd Grande, YouTube and a licensed professional mental health counselor with a doctorate in education and supervision counselors, told Insider.
But does eating disorders and joining these community members make members more susceptible to abuse?
Eating disorders are associated with past traumatic experiences. The CDC’s study of adverse childhood experiences, lasting more than 20 years with 17,000 participants, found that more and more episodes of childhood abuse – parental struggles with substance abuse or mental illness, divorce, abuse or neglect – are increasing the prevalence of negative health outcomes. such as mental health problems and reckless behavior.
“It’s risky behavior to be online and react to a predator,” Ross said, adding that young people with eating disorders “often had these negative childhood experiences”.
“Something in their family has already affected them and affected their self-esteem,” she said, adding that it makes them “perfect” targets.
People with eating disorders, especially anorexia, often limit other areas of their lives, she said, meaning they are often sexually, physically and emotionally “anorexic” as well. So they not only limit their diet, but tend to be withdrawn and find it difficult to continue or prolong friendships and romantic relationships. Eating disorder is their primary relationship and comes first and foremost to anyone else.
“Eating disorders need to come first,” Ross said. “Well, what better mask to target someone like this than to be on these proana sites, encouraging that?”
‘Coaches’ with eating disorders often present themselves as reliable
In December, the London Times reported that women with eating disorders were targeted by predatory men in Facebook groups. According to the Times, one of these men pretended to be a nurse and would send explicit messages to women and pressure them to send him nude photos. He also reportedly discussed masturbation with a child under the age of 16.
Ross said these predators advise young people with eating disorders to achieve their “goals” by posing as someone they can trust. In another May article in May, the student talked about how the coach she met online encouraged her to accept the extreme
diet, like eating only cabbage.
“He acted like that little anorexic voice in the back of his head,” she said. He would say, “You’ll look crazy when you hit seven stones,” referring to a British unit equal to 14 pounds. ”But I never wanted to hit seven stones. I would be dead before I got there. “
The Guardian reported in March 2019 that this type of teaching also took place on Kiku – a messaging app that was popular with teenagers at the time. The sales station found 71 anorexia groups in the app, where trainers would approach users “within minutes of joining the conversation”.
Grande told the Insider that someone with an eating disorder is seen as heavy or deformed when they look in the mirror.
“They see a person who is skinny. They see the same thing we do,” he said. “But to them, that thinness is too thick. It’s entering a real area of a kind of perceptual dynamic that’s hard to understand.”
Predators can take advantage of that thinking and get involved in this obsession, Ross said, especially if they offer help with weight loss tactics.
They also replace the role of parents in some cases by telling the victim that the guardians want to “fatten” them. Teenagers are vulnerable to this manipulation because their frontal lobes, responsible for decision-making and self-control, are not fully developed until the mid-20s, Ross said.
“They’re looking at the current award, I’m going to be skinny, I’m going to like it, I might become famous,” she said.
Former fans believe predators targeted Eugenia Cooney’s YouTube channel
Three former YouTube fans Eugenia Cooney told Insider that they believe this type of behavior happened on her Discord server – influencers of chat forums use to talk to fans. Stories of alleged grooming and predatory behavior in those communities surfaced last year, leading to Cooney deleting the server in September.
Cooney herself doesn’t explicitly craft pro-ana content, but falls into a gray zone where fans use her images as inspiration on sites like Pinterest. Her critics claim that her videos and thumbnails depict her body in a way that could trigger eating disorders in viewers.
A recent petition for the temporary deportation of Cooney, who is 26 and has more than 2 million YouTube subscribers, has raised questions about Cooney’s responsibility, and how her claim that her very skinny appearance is healthy can affect young people who emulate her.
The Discord situation was, for some of its critics, further confirmation that Cooney’s channel could be dangerous.
One of the former fans, who requested anonymity for fear of harassing Cooney’s fan base, told Insider that as soon as she joined the server she was contacted by someone who thought she was a child. She said she believes this person will try to “teach” her because they talked about eating disorders.
“I think Eugenia’s community is extremely insecure for minors or for anyone who is struggling, whether it’s an eating disorder or something else,” she said.
Another former Cooney fan, who wished to remain anonymous but with whom Insider spoke and identified, said she was sexually harassed by people on Cooney’s server. She sent Insider screenshots of older men talking, as well as one from April, in which the moderator of Discord told the minor to send him a message if he wanted to lose weight.
“Anyone can get a crack in the thigh,” he wrote.
Cooney said she deleted the Discord server in a video released in September when this story and others about predatory behavior reappeared.
In an e-mail dated September 10, she told Insider that she never voluntarily made a predator for her
or Disagreement and never would. She said she “immediately removed” the moderator when she saw evidence that it was a man convicted in 2014 of first-degree child abuse, according to police records.
“I’m sick of anyone thinking I was protecting predators,” she said. “I would absolutely never do that and I’m completely against any kind of predatory behavior and I would never forgive that.”
Predators have carefully developed tactics to hook young, vulnerable people
A recent study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders concluded that the longer teenagers are on social media, the more likely they are to develop an eating disorder. This is not a new area of research – previous studies have found a link between Instagram use and orthorexia, defined as an obsession with a “clean” diet, and discussed the impact of media spending on young people’s mental health in general.
According to Ross, the only answer is education in early childhood about social media, its impact on self-esteem, and the dangers it could bring. Otherwise, they may not be able to resist the kind of interaction that predators have carefully crafted to bring them together.
“I think most teenagers are vulnerable,” she said. “Especially girls struggling with body image problems.”
That someone strengthens the belief that losing more pounds is the way to be “perfect” is incredibly tempting, she said.
“They don’t realize the danger.”