Unless you have an eating disorder, or are close to someone who does, it's very hard to understand. Is it like diabetes or cancer, or is it self-inflicted and manipulative, or a product of our appearance-focused culture?
A recent New York Times report, "Your Brain on Computers," provides an analogy we all can wrap our heads around. An eating disorder is like an addiction to technology. In either case, you can't just say no.
You have to eat to live, and now you pretty much have to live with some combination of computer technology: email, Internet, text messaging, cell phone, at the minimum.
In a story by Tara Parker Pope
addiction researcher Dr. Kimberly Young compares online technology to food.
Pope writes, "Technology, like food, is an essential part of daily life, and those suffering from disordered online behavior cannot give it up entirely and instead have to learn moderation and controlled use."
Computer addiction sounds far-fetched, until it isn't. Young has written three books about it. The cycle looks very much like an eating disorder. Consider these signs, from a review of Young's book, Breaking Free of the Web, on Curled Up With a Good Book:
"Although there are different things to become addicted to on the Internet, they seem to end with similar results. For instance, a person will spend all their waking time on the Internet either in a chat room, viewing a website or surfing many websites. An addicted person most likely will spend money at these websites and go into debt. They will lose interest in family, friends and their jobs, they will sneak around to get their fix and lie about it. Many will pursue their addiction at work and will eventually get caught and fired. Sometimes the addict will lose their spouse and family."
People with severe eating disorders spend all their waking time on diet, food, weight, body image, exercise, purging. They spend money on it and may go into debt. They alienate family and friends. They sneak around and lie about it. And so on.
Disordered eating -- whether it's measuring out ounces of food or figuring out where to throw up in secret -- can be a way to find comfort and control. Turns out it's the same for constant texting and instant messaging and checking email.
One more wrinkle: Computer use can exacerbate eating disorders. Children between the ages of 13 and 19 are the demographic group most likely to use computers. Two-thirds of teenage girls look for health information on the Web, where much of the information about eating disorders is unreliable at best. And there are sites that promote eating disorders, where teens swap ideas about losing weight and purging. Researchers at Stanford University have found that teenagers who look for eating disorder information on the Internet are more likely to be hospitalized for their condition than teens who don't turn to the Web.
"People have always picked up and shared dangerous information," one of the study's authors told the journal Pediatrics in December 2006. Dr. Rebecka Peebles, an instructor of adolescent medicine at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University School of Medicine, added, "The Internet gives instant access to new and potentially dangerous information kids may not have encountered on their own."