Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

About Digital Youth

"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more

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Photo Credits: Ritchie Ly and Geert Allegaert.

No Wannarexics Allowed: An Analysis of Online Eating Disorder Communities

This project examines the construction of virtual eating disorder communities through pro-anorexia (ana) , pro-bulimia (mia), pro-eating-disorder-not-otherwise-specified (ednos) discussion groups. These eating disorders have historically been experienced and portrayed as individual and medicalized. But with the rise of new media technologies and modes of communication such as the internet and, specifically, social networking sites, digital communities have provided new possibilities for connections between once isolated individuals. Given the historical framing of eating disorders as individual this project does not examine the millions of individual pages on these networking sites, but rather the ways in which people come together around these topics. Participants in these sites may or may not have an actual eating disorder, but are invested in producing meanings and practices that create eating disorder communities and cultures online.

This research is situated in the context of the current moral panic surrounding obesity. In the 1990’s eating disorders were the body issue of the moment but that spot has now been taken over by concerns about excess weight. In other words, sites for the pro- ana/mia/ednos communities have proliferated while, at the same time, a general cultural conversation about eating disorders has waned. Initially, many servers took down pro-ana/mia sites, but, with the emergence of social networking sites, they have reappeared.

In order to look at the community aspect of these disorders, this project examines a popular digital gathering place which features ever changing number of pro-eating disorder groups. This project analyses the 20 most populous public groups. These groups are primarily populated by women under the age of 20. 56% of posters identify as teenagers.

These sites do not necessarily reflect or promote an actual spread in the numbers of people with eating disorders. As such, this research is not aimed at fanning the flames of moral panic around eating disorders. Rather, in taking a third wave feminist approach this research builds on and critiques second wave feminist analyses (Bordo, 1994) of girls and women with eating disorders as passive and isolated victims by examining three aspects of online eating disorder communities:

1. Realness versus faking: This is a tension that is pervasive in cyberworlds (Carter 2005). In the ana/mia/ednos online communities this tension manifests in the term "wannarexics." According to the posters on these sites a "wannarexic" is someone who occasionally diets but who is not dedicated to an eating disordered lifestyle. Participants in theses forums are highly concerned that only "real" anorexics or bulimics participate. Like other small groups they police these boundaries tightly, trying to ensure a cohesive group identity.

2. Cooptation of dominant diet discourse: Participants in these sites often use a “legitimate” diet discourse. They accept cultural truisms as to the unhealthiness of obesity and the desirability of thinness. Indeed many on these sites share eating tips and diet information found on mainstream weight loss web sites. Similar to those on mainstream weight loss programs who insist that they are not on a diet but are making lifestyle changes, members of the ana/mia/ednos community claim that their body practices, similarly, are lifestyle choices.

3. Support and criticism: These groups provide a context for interaction between community members. Group members request "thinspiration" (pictures, videos, or picture montages of extremely skinny women and celebrities to inspire them to continue with their restricted eating practices), feedback from others regarding their weight-loss and eating tips. Community members also criticize each other for not being "real" anorexics or bulimics.