ITV News investigates: Alarming rise in social media sites encouraging anorexic sufferers to starve themselves

By National Editor Allegra Stratton and Susannah Thraves

Forty to 60% of patients referred to a leading eating disorder therapist are having their conditioned worsened by social media.

Dr Bijal Chheda-Varma at the Nightingale clinic in London told ITV News she was concerned about the growing number of these sites, how unregulated they are and how little is being done to tackle the problem.

Pro anorexia or “pro_ana” is the phenomenon where websites exist with tips to help people with eating disorders prolong and maintain their condition.

Now an investigation by ITV News can show that social media chat rooms like Twitter and Instagram, as well as internet forums, are now allowing people to freely share Pro Ana tips.

On these messenger groups, children and young people “support” each other to starve themselves or binge and vomit. Called “ana buddies” these people push each other to lose ever extreme amounts of weight.

Often they use bullying language or “mean inspiration”, so called “meanspo” to keep group members on track with their starvation regime.

Dr Varma said: "There's about 40 to 60% of my case load with eating disorders. We can happily assume a lot of these are being influenced by social media and the input from social media. Social media is not a cause - we have to be very careful in understanding that - but it is a maintenance factor."

Bella Lewis, 22, from north London has recovered from anorexia and bulimia. She dealt with the illnesses for 6 years and used social media groups to maintain her illness.

She told ITV News: "It's terrifying. Because you're sat there, in your own illness, watching other people go through the illness. But they're making it okay to be ill. It's basically making it okay to kill yourself, because that is what an eating disorder can do."

Experts told ITV News not enough is being done to monitor these groups and their effect.

Bella Lewis has recovered from anorexia and bulimia. Credit: ITV News

Dr Emma Bond of the University of Suffolk said: “When I originally did the research in 2012 you did actually have to look for Pro Ana and it was more organised into websites.

"Now there are 100s of 1000s of individualised little blogs, social media accounts across Instagram, etc, and they’ve mainly been set up by people with an eating disorder themselves. They’re not only viewing the material but also publishing images of themselves more and more. And that’s what really concerning.”

How to keep safe online:

  • Do not share personal information with strangers.

  • Learn how to block both pop ups and spam emails, turn off in-app purchasing on devices where possible.

  • Discuss with your child the importance of reporting inappropriate conversations, messages, images and behaviours.

  • If your child is the victim of cyberbullying, this can also be reported online and offline.

For more advice on staying safe online for both adults and children, visit UK Safer Internet Centre.

For information on eating disorders and how to help if you are worried about someone, Beat has advice for sufferers, friends and family.