Warning: Video may contain disturbing images

Navigating the virtual world of eating disorders

By Erika Mahoney

November 19, 2013 Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 8:06 PM EDT

(WBNG Binghamton)  Search #anorexia or #bulimia on Instagram, and more than one million pictures will turn up.

Behind every picture is a story, sometimes troubling, scary and even heartbreaking.

"We're just so wrapped up in our bodies and appearance," said a 23-year-old in treatment for anorexia who wanted to remain anonymous.

Getting sucked into the millions of pictures can be easy, and even easier for some.

"The impact of social media for people with eating disorders is that they compare themselves to other people way more than anyone else would," said Samantha Nobel.

Nobel, a college student, began battling anorexia in high school. She said her eating disorder seems to come up every time there is a big change in her life. She goes to outpatient treatment once a week.

"During a very dark time in my life, I couldn't even read magazines because they were triggers for me."

Now those triggers are embedded in technology.

"If you see the same image over and over again, you're going to think that is how it's supposed to be and it's going to stay in your head."

Nobel said when your mind is already bombarded with counting calories and ways to avoid eating, the pictures only add to the clutter. She said Instagram has a stronger affect than word-based apps like Twitter. In this case, she said pictures are worth 1,000 words.

"You close your eyes and you see the images."

Along with the pictures are code words. When it comes to code words for eating disorders, #ana stands for anorexia and #mia stands for bulimia.

Recently, Instagram removed certain hashtags: "In order to maintain a positive and healthy community, our current community guidelines prohibit content and behavior that negatively impacts our community," Instagram founders wrote on their blog. "Hashtags that actively promote self-harm, such as "thinspiration," "probulimia," and "proanorexia," are no longer searchable."

But people have found a way around it, like adding extra letters. For example, "proanaaa" is searchable.

"When you read a pro-ana website, it's terrifying," said Carolyn Hodges Chaffee. She is the CEO of Upstate New York Eating Disorder Service.

When patients walk through the door at Sol Stone in Elmira, the only partial hospitalization center in the Southern Tier, Hodges Chaffee encourages them to put their phones away.

"Social media doesn't cause eating disorders," Hodges Chaffee said. "There's a saying in the eating disorder world that it truly is biology that loads the gun. It is environment that will pull the trigger."

But social media is a piece of our environment. That's why a Binghamton University teacher says it's up to an individual to decide how they are going to use Instagram.

"I think the fact that there are sites and that there is access to individuals and groups who are promoting these behaviors is disgusting," Jennifer Wegmann said. Wegmann teaches "Love Thyself and "Womens' Wellness."

Wegmann, who battled anorexia in college, said she believes people can navigate social media in a way that is positive.

"I think that there is so much potential with social media, to do good things, to promote positive images."

There are hashtags that promote recovery, like #edsoldier.

But sometimes, not searching at all is the best way out.

"You need to look ahead and see where you can see yourself in 10, 20 years," Nobel said. "And Instagram isn't going to be here in 10, 20 years, I can tell you that right now. We're living right now in the height of it and it's unfortunate that people have negative repercussions from it, but you need to just learn that it means nothing and you need to be sure of yourself. And you need to be able to know that you are more than a picture."

For local resources on support for eating disorders, click here.

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