Is blocking pro-ED content the right way to solve eating disorders?

Warning: This post deals with eating disorder and self-harm content and is potentially triggering.

Following up on Tarleton’s terrific post on moderating Facebook comes Tumblr’s announcement that it will no longer allow pro-eating disorder (pro-ED) or pro-self-harm blogs on the site.

Active Promotion of Self-Harm. Don’t post content that actively promotes or glorifies self-injury or self-harm. This includes content that urges or encourages readers to cut or mutilate themselves; embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders; or commit suicide rather than, e.g., seek counseling or treatment for depression or other disorders. Online dialogue about these acts and conditions is incredibly important; this prohibition is intended to reach only those blogs that cross the line into active promotion or glorification. For example, joking that you need to starve yourself after Thanksgiving or that you wanted to kill yourself after a humiliating date is fine, but recommending techniques for self-starvation or self-mutilation is not.

(The remainder of this post focuses on eating disorder content, because it’s what I know the most about. I’d love to hear more from people familiar with self-harm communities.)

Pro-ED content has existed on the internet for many years, and it has been studied by many researchers. It is primarily created and consumed by girls and young women, ages 13-25. There is evidence that the viewing of pro-ED websites (pro-ana, anorexia, and pro-mia, bulimia) produces negative effects in college-age women — lower self-esteem and perception of oneself as “heavier” (Bardone-Cone & Cass, 2007). But pro-ED websites have been sensationalized in the media as cults that encourage young women to kill themselves, even ending up as the case-of-the-week on Boston Legal.

At the same time, the cultural pressure on young women to conform to normative body types is intense. In Am I Thin Enough Yet? The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity, feminist sociologist Sharlene Hess Biber looks at the complex interactions between media, schools, peers, family, and the health and fitness industry that systemically undermine young women’s self confidence, send the message that appearance is more important than intelligence or personality, and emphasize the importance of thinness overall. Often, the messages found on pro-ana or pro-mia sites– such as “nothing tastes as good as thin feels”, attributed to Kate Moss but actually a Weight Watchers slogan that has been around for decades– are extraordinarily similar to those found in magazines like Self and Women’s Health, or on websites like My Fitness Pal or Sparkpeople that promote weight loss in a “healthy” way. These media emphasize different weight loss techniques, but the message is the same: it is very important to be thin and conform to an attractive, normative body ideal.

Pro-ED websites are a female subculture, with their own vocabulary, customs, and norms. Moreover, the women who frequent these sites are well aware that their practices are stigmatized. In general, women with eating disorders go to great lengths to hide them from friends and families. This is primarily for two reasons: one, they want to keep losing weight and are worried that they may be forced into treatment, and two, they are afraid of being ridiculed or called out by others. The anonymous or pseudonymous nature of pro-ED sites allows these participants an outlet for their social isolation, and (to a certain extent) emotional support from others going through the same experiences that they are.

Jeannine Gailey, a sociologist of deviance, wrote a paper on pro-ED websites using ethnographic methods. She concludes:

They need a place where they can share their stories and fears with others who are similarly minded and have had comparable experiences. They, as Dias put it [another ethnographic researcher of pro-ana sites, paper here], are seeking a sanctuary. The internet provides the women with both a sanctuary and a medium in which to express the sensations and intense emotions they experience as they struggle to maintain control over their bodies and lives…. The women’s narratives I explored indicate that they participate in the central features of edgework, namely pushing oneself to the edge, testing the limits of both their bodies and minds, exercising particular skills that require ‘innate talent’ and mental toughness, and feelings of self-actualization or omnipotence.

Gailey frames EDs as “edgework,” a concept from criminology/deviance that describes practices of voluntary risk-taking, like skydiving, rock climbing, ‘extreme sports’, stock-trading, unprotected sex, and illegal graffiti. The skills Gailey describes as part of edgework are similar to those emphasized by other body-related extreme communities, such as those devoted to bodybuilding, crossfit, veganism, and paleo dieting. On such communities, members swap tips, ask for support, show progress, share information and share vocabularies and normative practices.

Obviously, Tumblr isn’t focusing on any of these communities. I’m not arguing that eating disorders aren’t dangerous, or even that they’re potentially empowering. They are not. But the focus on young women’s online practice as deviant, pathological, and quasi-illegal is in line with a long history. Young women and their bodies are often the locus of control of social panics, from teen pregnancies to virginity to obesity to dressing “slutty”.

More importantly, Tumblr banning this content won’t do anything to make it go away. It does take Tumblr off the hook, but even the quickest search for self-harm or thinspo (serious trigger warning) finds thousands of posts, many heartbreaking in their raw honesty. One Tumblr writes:

if tumblr blocks all our blogs then things will be worse. off than they were before, we’ll feel alone again, outcasts! Who can we share our problems with if our blogs have been taken off us? We share our deepest and most darkest secrets on here and if our blogs are taken where are we supposed to put our feelings? They will build up inside of us and things will get worse and worse. Well done tumblr you bunch of arseholes, you’re going to make things worse.

Pragmatically, many of the thinspo content has simply migrated to Pinterest. Others have password-protected their blogs and spread the password to people in the community.

Eating disorder prevention needs to be structural as well as medical. Realistically, eating disorders aren’t going anywhere as long as we have a complex set of mediated images and discursive tropes that pin the importance of young women on their bodies. These issues exist on a continuum that includes everything from Shape magazine and The Biggest Loser to well-meaning anti-childhood obesity initiatives. Young women participating in pro-ED communities are acting upon messages they get from many other places in their lives. While there is no agreed-upon way of dealing with pro-ED communities– and it’s great that Tumblr is going to implement PSA-type ads that appear on searches for these terms– there are more productive interventions that can be made. We must understand the reasons these young women are in such pain and, more importantly, be willing to engage with these communities, rather than painting them as horrific or abhorrent.

Four Difficult Questions Regarding Bullying and Youth Suicide

Over the last couple of years, I’ve laid awake at night asking myself uncomfortable questions about bullying and teen suicide. I don’t have answers to most of the questions that I have, but I’m choosing to voice my questions, fears, and doubts because I’m not confident that our war on bullying is taking us down the right path. I’m worried about the unintended consequences of our public discourse and I’m worried about the implications that our decisions have on youth, particularly in this high-stakes arena. So I’m asking these four tough questions in the hopes that we can collectively step back and think critically about how we’re addressing bullying as a public issue.

1. What if the stranger danger / sexual predator moral panic increased LGBT suicide?

When I was growing up online, talking to strangers allowed me to getting different perspectives on the world. As a queer teen, the internet allowed me to connect with people who helped me grapple with hard questions around sexuality. I very much thank the internet for playing a crucial role in helping me survive high school. In 2001/2, I visited the online forums that I grew up in, only to find that they were filled with hateful messages directed at LGBT youth by religious ideologues who, quite simply, told these kids they were going to hell. I learned that LGBT networks had gone underground.

As the sexual predator moral panic kicked in in 2005, youth started telling me about how all internet strangers were dangerous. They swallowed the message they’d been told, hook, line, and sinker. What really startled me were all of the LGBT youth I met who told me that they had no one to talk with… I’d ask them if they connected with other LGBT folks online and they’d look at me with horror before talking about how scary/sketchy/bad strangers were.

By many accounts, the early internet seems to be correlated with a decline in suicide among LGBT youth, perhaps because of its ability to connect LGBT to information and support structures. What if the stranger danger rhetoric undermines that? Who do LGBT youth turn to when they’re feeling isolated? Is it possible that the culture of fear we’ve created has increased suicide rates? If so, who’s responsible?

2. What if “It Gets Better” increases emotional devastation for some LGBT youth?

Most LGBT-identified teens who have committed suicide since the “It Gets Better” campaign have been involved in the campaign in some way. Jamey Rodemeyer notoriously made a video before he killed himself. Countless adults (and youth) have celebrated “It Gets Better” as a powerful message filled with hope. But “It Gets Better” isn’t the same as “I can make it better.” Abstraction and patience don’t help when you’re in pain Right Now.

When you’re 14 and coming to terms with your sexuality, six months feels like a decade and 4 years feels like eternity. Along comes a message of hope and it’s really exciting and you get pumped up, like the way you feel when a new song comes on the radio that you feel really speaks to you. You dive in, you create your story, you make your own video. And then what? The humdrums at school continue on and you continue to get teased, only worse this time because you publicly pronounced your story. You felt like you were part of a movement but no one reached out to you, no one helped you make it better. No community was made, no support group was developed. You’re still alone. No one seems to care. You crash and burn.

Getting “high” on a movement can be devastating for youth if there’s no support structure there when they fall. The Trevor Project did a great job of providing some of the needed support infrastructure, but communities themselves often aren’t prepared to support youth. Social services are underfunded. Schools are strapped for cash and getting rid of guidance structures. Parents are stressed out. Community groups are not always tolerant of questioning youth. Is it possible that hopeful messages like “It Gets Better” result in more devastating crashes, particularly for youth in not-so-supportive communities? Does the positive narrative outweigh the possible existential break that can come with being disappointed that things don’t get better?

3. What if the media spotlight around bullying causes harm to youth?

In January 2010, a Massachusetts-based girl named Phoebe Prince killed herself. The highly publicized story suggested that she was an innocent victim who was cruelly tormented by her peers. The story was told in such a cut-and-dry manner that it should’ve raised suspicions in anyone’s mind, but people glommed onto the narrative. Shortly later, the local District Attorney charged six students with various crimes in the case. But did they do what they were accused of doing or was this a witchhunt cloaked as justice? Those kids’ lives have been wrecked by the investigation, publicity, and charges. If they are the devils incarnate that the press want them to be, arguable they deserve it. But what if they didn’t? (If you want to read phenomenal coverage of this, check out Emily Bazelon’s 2010 feature series.)

In the summer of 1999, I was at a rave in a field in Colorado. I was in my tent, writing in my journal, when a group of kids asked me if they could come in. We got to talking and I learned that they had all been students at Columbine on that fateful day when the sanctity of their school was destroyed. I asked them about what it was like to be there and they said that it sucked, but nothing sucked more than the aftermath. They started telling me about how the press hounded them, how they couldn’t hang out with friends, how they had no place to go anymore because the press would sit on their lawns and beg them for more details. Paparazzi at its worst. The kids in my tent had all dropped out of school because of the press. WTF?

On one hand, it’s great that there’s public attention being given to bullying, suicide, and the hardships that youth face. On the other, I can’t help but wonder if the spotlight does additional damage. Does the spotlight help us find effective interventions or just force people to create bandaids? Does it increase justice or result in more kids’ lives being destroyed? Does it showcase the challenges that youth face or obscure them in caricatured forms that lose their nuance? In an effort to tell the story, do we create angels and demons that destroy any hope of creating change?

4. What if us adults are part of the problem?

I spend countless hours talking to youth, thinking about youth, and speaking out on behalf of youth. Nothing makes my heart ache more than seeing youth suffer. I can also still vividly remember my own experiences as a “weird” teen growing up in Pennsylvania who was regularly ostracized and teased. I remember what it was like to feel powerless and to reach that precarious state of anomie. I don’t want anyone to have to go through that which is why I’m so deeply committed to this struggle.

That said, I think that it’s outright dangerous to get so lost in our mission to combat bullying that we stop looking into the mirror. What are the norms that we set for young people when we talk poorly about our friends, family, neighbors, or colleagues at the dinner table? When we engage in road rage while driving? Why is it that we accept – if not encourage – meanness in our political sparring? Or on our TV talk shows? Why do marketers put their money behind reality TV shows that propagate the value of relationship drama as entertainment? Look around at the society we’ve created and it’s filled with harshness. To top it off, look at how much we pressure our youth, particularly middle class youth. Hyper-competition starts early and is non-stop. And look at how increased economic pressure in this country creates new tensions, particularly for working class youth. Then add in the fact that puberty is where all sorts of mental health issues start to appear. Where are the support structures for youth that go beyond the family? We’ve defunded social services left right and center.

In short, we’re creating a societal recipe for disaster even while we publicly pronounce our crusades to end bullying. We don’t need more pundits and journalists and politicians telling us we need to end bullying. We know that. We need to start building out the infrastructure to make it happen. And to realize that it’s a systems-level problem that is not easy to solve. There’s no silver bullet, no magical solution. It can’t be instantly stopped at the school door. It requires collective action, with an eye towards making the world a better place. It requires all-hands-on and a commitment from everyone – and I do mean everyone – to take responsibility for their own actions, values, and attitudes within society. Bullying doesn’t stop by blaming others. It doesn’t stop by creating new regulations. Or inventing new demons. Or scaring people shitless. It stops by collectively agreeing to engage in acts of tolerance, love, bravery, and respect. And that’s far harder to do than passing laws, prosecuting teens, or writing fear-mongering stories.

Image Credit: Ashley Rose

The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric

We all know that teen bullying – both online and offline – has devastating consequences. Jamey Rodemeyer’s suicide is a tragedy. He was tormented for being gay. He knew he was being bullied and he regularly talked about the fact that he was being bullied. Online, he even wrote: “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. What do I have to do so people will listen to me?” The fact that he could admit that he was being tormented coupled with the fact that he asked for help and folks didn’t help him should be a big wake-up call. We have a problem. And that problem is that most of us adults don’t have the foggiest clue how to help youth address bullying.

It doesn’t take a tragedy to know that we need to find a way to combat bullying. Countless regulators and educators are desperate to do something – anything – to put an end to the victimization. But in their desperation to find a solution, they often turn a blind’s eye to both research and the voices of youth.

The canonical research definition of bullying was written by Olweus and it has three components:

  • Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
  • Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
  • Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.

What Rodemeyer faced was clearly bullying, but a lot of the reciprocal relational aggression that teens experience online is not actually bullying. Still, in the public eye, these concepts are blurred and so when parents and teachers and regulators talk about wanting to stop bullying, they talk about wanting to stop all forms of relational aggression too. The problem is that many teens do not – and, for good reasons, cannot – identify a lot of what they experience as bullying. Thus, all of the new fangled programs to stop bullying are often missing the mark entirely. In a new paper that Alice Marwick and I co-authored – called “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics” – we analyzed the language of youth and realized that their use the language of “drama” serves many purposes, not the least of which is to distance themselves from the perpetrator / victim rhetoric of bullying in order to save face and maintain agency.

For most teenagers, the language of bullying does not resonate. When teachers come in and give anti-bullying messages, it has little effect on most teens. Why? Because most teens are not willing to recognize themselves as a victim or as an aggressor. To do so would require them to recognize themselves as disempowered or abusive. They aren’t willing to go there. And when they are, they need support immediately. Yet, few teens have the support structures necessary to make their lives better. Rodemeyer is a case in point. Few schools have the resources to provide youth with the necessary psychological counseling to work through these issues. But if we want to help youth who are bullied, we need there to be infrastructure to help young people when they are willing to recognize themselves as victimized.

To complicate matters more, although school after school is scrambling to implement anti-bullying programs, no one is assessing the effectiveness of these programs. This is not to say that we don’t need education – we do. But we need the interventions to be tested. And my educated hunch is that we need to be focusing more on positive frames that use the language of youth rather than focusing on the negative.

I want to change the frame of our conversation because we need to change the frame if we’re going to help youth. I’ve spent the last seven years talking to youth about bullying and drama and it nearly killed me when I realized that all of the effort that adults are putting into anti-bullying campaigns are falling on deaf ears and doing little to actually address what youth are experiencing. Even hugely moving narratives like “It Gets Better” aren’t enough when a teen can make a video for other teens and then kill himself because he’s unable to make it better in his own community.

In an effort to ground the bullying conversation, Alice Marwick and I just released a draft of our new paper: “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics.” We also co-authored a New York Times Op-Ed in the hopes of reaching a wider audience: “Why Cyberbullying Rhetoric Misses the Mark.” Please read these and send us feedback or criticism. We are in this to help the youth that we spend so much time with and we’re both deeply worried that adult rhetoric is going in the wrong direction and failing to realize why it’s counterproductive.

Image from Flickr by Brandon Christopher Warren
Continue reading “The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric”

The Unintended Consequences of Obsessing Over Consequences (or why to support youth risk-taking)

Developmental psychologists love to remind us that the frontal lobe isn’t fully developed until humans are in their mid-20s. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our ability to assess the consequences of our decisions, our ability to understand how what we do will play out into the future. This is often used to explain why teens (and, increasingly, college-aged people) lack the cognitive ability to be wise. Following from this logic, there’s a belief that we must protect the vulnerable young people from their actions because they don’t understand their consequences.

This logic assumes that understanding future consequences is *better* than not understanding them. I’m not sure that I believe this to be true.

Certainly, when we send young people off to fight our wars, we don’t want them to think about the consequences of what they have to do to survive (and, thus, help us survive). It’s not that we want them to shoot first and ask questions later, but we don’t want them to overthink their survival instincts when they’re being shot at.

Reproduction is an interesting counter-example. There’s no doubt that teens moms do little in the way of thinking about the consequence of getting pregnant. But folks in their 30s spend an obscene amount of time thinking about what it means to reproduce. Intensive parenting is clearly the product of constantly thinking about consequences, but I’m not sure that it’s actually healthier for kids or parents. I would hypothesize that biology wins when we don’t overthink parenting while the planet (as a delicate environmental ecosystem that can barely support the population) wins when we do overthink these things. Just a guess.

Creativity is another interesting area. We often talk about how older people are more rigid in their thinking. I love listening to mathematicians discuss whether or not someone who has not had a breakthrough insight in their 20s can have one in their 40s/50s. Certainly in the tech industry, we’re obsessed with youth. But our obsession in many ways is rooted in risk-taking, in not thinking too much about the future.

As I get older, I’m painfully aware of my brain getting more ‘conservative’ (not in a political sense). I am more strategic in my thinking, more judgmental of people who just try something radical. I spend a lot more time telling the little voice of fear and anxiety and neuroticism to STFU. I look back at my younger years and reflect on how stupid I was and then I laugh when I think about how well some of my more ridiculous ideas paid off. I find myself actually thinking about consequences before taking risks and then I get really annoyed at myself because I’ve always prided myself on my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants quality. In short, I can feel myself getting old and I think it’s really weird.

Most people judge from their current mental mindset, unable to remember a different mindset. Thus, I totally get why most people, if they’re undergoing the cognitive transition that I’ve watched myself do, would see young people’s risk-taking as inherently horrible. Sure, old folks respect the outcomes of some youth who change the world. But since most people don’t become Mark Zuckerberg, there’s more pressure to protect (and, often, confine) youth than to encourage their radical risk taking. And, of course, most risk-taking doesn’t result in a billion dollar valuation. Hell, most risk-taking has no chance of paying off. But it’s a weird, connected package. The same mindset that propelled me to do some seriously reckless, outright dangerous, and sometimes illegal things also prompted me to never say no to other institutional authorities in ways that allowed me to succeed professionally. This is why I don’t regret even the stupidist of things that I did as a youth. Of course, I’m also damn lucky that I never got caught.

I’m worried about our societal assumption that risk-taking without thinking of the consequences is an inherently bad thing. We need some radical thinking to solve many of the world’s biggest problems. And I don’t believe that it’s so easy to separate out what adults perceive as ‘good’ risk-taking from what they think is ‘bad’ risk-taking. But how many brilliant minds will we destroy by punishing their radical acts of defying authority? How many brilliant minds will we destroy by punishing them for ‘being stupid’? It’s easy to get caught up in a binary of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when all that you can think about is the consequences. But change has never happened when people simply play by the rules. You have to break the rules to create a better society. And I don’t think that it’s easy to do this when you’re always thinking about the consequences of your actions.

I’m not arguing for anarchy. I’m too old for that. But I am arguing that we should question our assumption that people are better off when they have the cognitive capacity to think through consequences. Or that society is better off when all individuals have that mental capability. From my perspective, there are definitely pros and cons to overthinking and while there are certainly cases where future-aware thought is helpful, there are also cases where it’s not. And I also think that there are some serious consequences of imprisoning youth until they grow up.

Anyhow, fun thoughts to munch on this weekend…

“Teen Sexting and Its Impact on the Tech Industry” (danah’s talk for the RWW Conference)

In a cultural context where Congressman Anthony Weiner foolishly published salacious content on Twitter, it’s hard to ignore sexting as a cultural phenomenon. Countless adults send sexually explicit content to one another, either as acts of flirtation or more explicit sex acts. And yet, when teenagers do so, new issues emerge. Teen sexting gets complicated, especially when images or videos are involved, because it butts up against child pornography laws. Unfortunately, teens have been arrested on child pornography charges for taking or sharing images of themselves or their peers.

Teen sexting isn’t just an issue for parents, teens, and the law; it’s also a challenge for the tech industry. Because technology companies are required by law to work diligently to combat child pornography, sexting creates new challenges for them. In this talk for the Read Write Web 2WAY conference, I outline some of the challenges that the tech industry faces with respect to teen sexting. I also invite those in the tech industry to engage about this issue, either out of goodwill, monetary interest, or fear of legal liability.

“Teen Sexting and Its Impact on the Tech Industry”

How Teens Understand Privacy

In the fall, danah boyd and Alice Marwick went into the field to understand teens’ privacy attitudes and practices. We’ve blogged some of our thinking since then but we’re currently working on turning our thinking into a full-length article. We are lucky enough to be able to workshop our ideas at an upcoming scholarly meeting (PLSC), but we also wanted to share our work-in-progress with the public since we both know that there are all sorts of folks out there who have a lot of knowledge about this domain but with whom we don’t have the privilege of regularly interacting.

“Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies”
by danah boyd and Alice Marwick

Please understand that this is an unfinished work-in-progress article, complete with all sorts of bugs that we will need to address before we submit it for publication. But… we would certainly love feedback, critiques, and suggestions for how to improve it. Given the highly interdisciplinary nature of this kind of research, it’s also quite likely that we’re missing out on all sorts of prior work that was done in this space so we’d love to also hear about any articles that we should’ve read by now. Or any thoughts you might have that might advance/complicate our thinking.