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Some people are using apps to promote eating disorders


November 07, 2018

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There are tens of thousands of weight loss apps available for download in app stores. You may have heard of the popular ones like MyFitnessPal, but weight loss apps like Zero and Vora that promote fasting also get a lot of downloads. While these fitness apps can help users as they try to lead healthier lives, they can also be dangerous for those who are susceptible to eating disorders.

Intermittent fasting is a health fad that has different iterations, varying from only eating during a certain time window to going days without food. Bloomberg Businessweek reports monthly Google searches for “intermittent fasting,” have risen tenfold over the past three years.

Some good scientific evidence suggests certain types of fasting (combined with healthy eating and exercise) can help people lose weight, according to Harvard Health. These fasting apps can help users set goals, track eating and get encouragement from friends. On the downside, these apps can also encourage extreme cases of fasting, especially for those already battling eating disorders.

The app Vora launched just last year and allows users to follow friends, post their fasts and then comment on other users’ fasts. The website Broadly interviewed many people suffering with eating disorders and found some of them began using the app to motivate each other into longer fasts. Vora’s tagline is “track your fasts with friends,” and creator, Mark Halonen, told Broadly the app actually helps those with eating disorders. “I have only seen encouragement and concern expressed on Vora towards those with eating disorders,” he said. The app isn’t fully fleshed out yet. When creating an account, a notification pops up explaining that there is no way to have a private account or to block users. But the only way to follow people is if you know their username, so it may be difficult for random people to follow other people’s profiles.

At least one fasting app, Zero, claims it wants users to be informed about health benefits and risks before starting intermittent fasting. It requires users to sign an agreement that they will consult a doctor before even starting to use the app.

Other apps seem to promote fat-shaming. One is called Carrot Hunger which humiliates users into cutting back on calories after they enter their sex, age, height and weight. Depending on your input, the avatar representing you in the app becomes fatter, with monikers ranging from "part-time model" to "big boned" to "morbidly obese." As users document their food intake, the avatar again gets fatter depending on how many calories it’s consuming and will tell you how much exercise is needed to burn off what you just ate. When the user surpasses a daily calorie limit, the avatar gets even larger and starts eating from a trough. Going over calorie limits causes full screen ads to appear (which you can pay to have go away) and monetary bribes pop up that you can pay so that the calories don’t count toward the limit. The creators call it hilarious, but it’s apps like these that can seriously harm users’ feelings of self-worth, especially young people.

Those who are pro-ana, or promoting anorexia, often try to find one another and form communities on social media. If you try to search for the hashtags linked to eating disorders like #proana, #bulimia or #anorexia, you’ll find varying results depending on the social network. Facebook’s Community Standards say that it removes content that promotes or encourages eating disorders and I indeed had a hard time finding any. Twitter also says it draws the line at encouraging or promoting eating disorders, yet I was able to search for #proana and found tons of content. Instagram takes it a step further when a user searches for such terms by including a pop up warning. The notification explains that the word or tag searched often encourages behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death. “If you’re going through something difficult,” it says, “we’d like to help.” Users then have the option of clicking to get support or to see the posts anyway.

On forums promoting anorexia, Broadly found several regularly mentioned favorite apps (besides the ones already mentioned): Eating Thin, Toilet Tracker, Calorie King, Plant Nanny and Chronometer.

If a child asks for one of these apps, or already has one downloaded, parents should talk with them about how they intend to use the app. It could be a great opportunity for honest conversations with kids about the dangers of eating disorders and how to avoid falling prey to the idea that simply being skinny makes you attractive. A study from Virginia Commonwealth University found an association between people who reported using calorie trackers and those who had symptoms of eating disorders. The researchers found that “although preliminary, overall results suggest that for some individuals, these devices might do more harm than good.”

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