Although some research suggests that online eating disorder forums promote “pro-eating-disorder” lifestyles and discourage recovery, other research suggests that such forums are an important source of interpersonal support. The current study extends this research by exploring the positive and negative behaviors encouraged on these forums and by comparing forum members' perceptions of support received from online and offline relationships to support received in relationships of age-matched controls.
In a survey of 60 forum members, we assessed information exchanged and support provided on eating disorder forums. Further, we assessed perceptions of social support for general and specific life concerns in this group of forum members as well as 64 age-matched university controls.
Results show that both adaptive and maladaptive behaviors are encouraged on the forums, and that this encouragement has some influence on forum members trying out these behaviors. Overall, forum members reported receiving less support for their eating concerns as compared to their general life stressors, and they perceived less support for both their general concerns and eating concerns in their offline relationships as compared to their online forum relationships. Moreover, forum members reported receiving less support from their offline relationships as compared to support received in relationships by age-matched controls.
Forum members perceive less support in their important relationships than other peers do, and they seek out and participate in forums as a means of attaining greater social support. However, our research suggests that these forums also encourage dysregulated eating behaviors. Implications of online forum support and its impact on recovery are discussed further. © 2009 by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Int J Eat Disord, 2010