CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)–When she discovered an account on the popular photo-sharing app Instagram that was “pro” eating disorder, Emily Hernandez was horrified by photos of emaciated girls presented as models for emulation. The 19-year-old couldn’t believe anyone would glorify the same illness she had battled with and loathed for years.

As she put it during an interview via Facebook messenger, “There’s nothing ‘pro’ about mental illness.”

During the course of her own recovery, while she was a freshman at Ball State University in Balcie, Indiana, Hernandez stumbled across many sites where teens would share their struggles with depression, eating disorders, body image and suicide. Often, these discussions about common afflictions seemed to help everyone minimize the threats.

But there were also those sites and posts that celebrated self-destructive behavior.

“There are some people out there that understand their illness and just don’t want to get better because they aren’t ready, because they’re in too deep or because they are blinded,” Hernandez said. “It’s all just so sad and disturbing to me.”

Hernandez doesn’t think the content or the sites are necessarily created with malicious intent. She said it’s often the work of teens who are seeking peer support with their struggles.

Diana Denza, youth outreach coordinator of the National Eating Disorder Association, based in New York City, agrees. “While these communities do appear to encourage unhealthy attitudes toward food and weight, we must also remember that they are often run by young people who are struggling with these issues themselves,” she said in an email interview.

Teens who are suffering with eating disorders may cope with overwhelming emotions by using harmful weight loss tactics, Denza said.

No Warning Signs

But the problem, Hernandez said, is the sites that could tempt teens in unhealthy directions don’t come with warning signs. “There are definitely people out there wanting to help,” she said. “But you have to put yourself first and make sure you’re aware of the negative effects these sites can have. Make sure that what you’re looking at is actually healthy. And if you can’t decide what counts as helpful and what is merely relatable suffering, the best thing you can do is stay away.”

Hannah Fletcher, who is 18 and from Buffalo Grove, Illinois, can also attest to problematic content online.

“I’ve seen Tumblr posts of girls with their hip bones sticking out and the caption saying ‘This is what beauty looks like,’ or pictures of extremely deep [self-harm] cuts saying, ‘If you’re going to do it, you might as well go as deep as you can,” said Fletcher during a phone interview.

“I remember reporting an Instagram account called something like ‘Analove’ where the admin referred to anorexia as ‘Ana,’ so that the writer could talk about it in admiration,” Hernandez said. “I have struggled with long-term eating disorders in the past and even in my darkest moments I could not stand to hear people talk about the illness as if it were something to be thankful for.”

Some social media platforms have taken some steps to block content that could spread harmful ideas. In 2011 Facebook partnered with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to provide a tool enabling users to report harmful or suicidal content with a single click. Tumblr’s “Policy Against Self Harm Blogs” prohibits pages that glorify or promote anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders or self-mutilation.

Wellness Undermined

However, these measures haven’t stamped out content or posts or places where young people congregate and undermine efforts at wellness by sending messages encouraging each other to stay thin.

Fletcher, an incoming freshman at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, said she has encountered troubling content on Tumblr, Instagram and Facebook. “It seemed to me that no matter what site I was on, or whether I wanted to see that type of content or not, it found a way to pop up out of nowhere,” she said.

A simple key word search on “self-harm,” “suicide,” “eating disorders” or “depression” could lead an already struggling teen to websites that could pull them back into ideas they are trying to escape.

“It is my clinical opinion that these websites have the potential of encouraging vulnerable young people to develop a disorder, while simultaneously discouraging them from seeking treatment,” Rebecca Leifeld, a licensed clinical professional counselor based in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, said in an email interview.

For teens struggling to stop harming themselves, the same kinds of danger zones exist online as for those with eating disorders.

Some accounts on Instagram allow followers to meet and exchange triggering photos of their self-injury. It might look, on the surface, like a support group. But Leifeld said this readily accessible sea of photos, poems, quotes and text posts pose trouble for young women and teens whose suffering has reached the clinical level.

“It seems that these websites can look attractive to someone who is trying to gain support with existing mental health issues,” she said. “However, these sites are promoting destructive behaviors rather than providing resources to get help.”