Radicalized by Thinness: Using a Model of Radicalization to Understand Pro-Anorexia Communities on Twitter

Kristina Lerman, Aryan Karnati, Shuchan Zhou, Siyi Chen, Sudesh Kumar, Zihao He, Joanna Yau, Abigail Horn

The rise in eating disorders, a condition with serious health complications, has been linked to the proliferation of idealized body images on social media platforms. However, the relationship between social media and eating disorders is more complex, with online platforms potentially enabling harmful behaviors by linking people to ``pro-ana'' communities that promote eating disorders. We conceptualize the growth of harmful pro-ana communities as a process of online radicalization. We show that a model of radicalization explains how individuals are driven to conversations about extreme behaviors, like fasting, to achieve the ``thin body'' goal, and how these conversations are validated by pro-ana communities. By facilitating social connections to like-minded others, a shared group identity and emotional support, social media platforms can trap individuals within toxic echo chambers that normalize extreme disordered eating behaviors and other forms of self-harm. Characterizing and quantifying the role of online communities in amplifying harmful conversations will support the development of strategies to mitigate their impact and promote better mental health.

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