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Should pro-anorexia sites be banned?

The U.K.'s Royal College of Psychiatrists calls for pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia sites to be banned. But is this even feasible without specific governmental direction?

Perhaps no one should be surprised that there are Web sites that appear to encourage those who have anorexia and bulimia and even give supposedly helpful tips on how to pursue those conditions.

Now the U.K.'s Royal College of Psychiatrists has called for urgent governmental action to halt the proliferation of such sites.

"Pro-ana and pro-mia websites advocate anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa as a lifestyle choice, rather than as serious mental disorders," said professor Ulrike Schmidt, chair of the college's eating disorders section. "Research shows that, even for healthy young women, viewing such websites induces low mood, low self-esteem and increased body dissatisfaction."

One study, from IT security company Optenet, reported that pro-ana and pro-mia sites increased fivefold from 2006 to 2008.

And yet there doesn't seem to be sufficient direction given by governments that might give Internet service providers the incentive to take down such sites.

Earlier this month, ISPs in Ireland said, according to the Irish Herald, that they needed specific governmental guidance before being able to remove questionable sites. But not always. Paul Durrant, general manager of the Irish Internet Service Providers Association, told the Herald that an ISP could act if the site was hosted in Ireland and it was causing "undue stress".

Some blame catwalks for encouraging excessive thinness. Cc Naughty Architect/Flickr

A brief perusal of pro-ana and pro-mia Web sites suggests that while some clearly present themselves as trying to help those with anorexia and bulimia, others appear to lend credence to the notion of these behaviors as a "lifestyle choice."

The community called Proanorexia, for example, says it exists to offer positive support and declares that "95% (if not more) of [pro-anorexia] sites need to be shut down for one simple fact- THEY KILL!" And yet one wonders why Proanorexia doesn't at least change its name to reflect this stance.

And what is one to make of a site called Pretty Thin? It claims: "This site is taking on a new direction. For over a year now, this site has been about thinspiration, and a location for those choosing to take the Ana lifestyle upon themselves."

So what is Pretty Thin's new purpose in life? The site, which features an interesting Pic of the Week page, declares: "Pretty Thin is going to be about beauty."

Then there's Pro Bulimia Tips and Tricks, a site that says it offers guidelines "for people who have bulimia nervosa and have already read about how bad it is but who aren't changing."

The tips and tricks aren't pretty. For example: "If you use laxatives, make very sure to be well-hydrated beforehand. Drink extra water and take potassium. It really helps against cramping, pain, and dizziness." Or: "Use more than one finger, and wiggle them a little to 'tickle' the gag reflex. I personally use three...makes me feel like i am choking and everything comes up."

Perhaps effecting a change is simply a matter of public pressure. Perhaps. Some would defend these sites on the basis of that slippery notion called freedom of speech. But do many of these sites actively encourage the young and vulnerable to harm themselves?