Online, kids’ are exposed to many different peer groups, and some of those groups focus on hate, racism, bombs, drugs, gambling, terrorism and cults.  Following the ten-year anniversary of September 11th, it’s worth noting that terrorist groups are using technology and social media to recruit teens and young adults to their networks.  There have been numerous news stories out over the past several years regarding how militant organizations are turning to virtual communities to connect with and recruit individuals to their diverse base from around the world.

Likewise, kids utilizing social media and creating online groups to specifically target, bully and terrorize their classmates and to perpetuate unhealthy, dangerous and even destructive behaviors among their peers and broader online community.

Over the past few years, the counselors I’ve work with have told me that they are seeing increased numbers of children coming into their offices struggling with eating disorders, self-mutilation and bullying.  These online groups facilitate and fuel destructive behaviors.  Pro-anorexia and bulhemia, sites for example, (also called pro-ana, thinspo, thinspiration, emothinspo) collect pictures to inspire their community to lose weight, spread tricks to avoid detection, and discuss the best ways to force yourself to throw up.

This letter from “Ana” on a pro-anorexia site gives you a taste of the type of content available:

Allow me to introduce myself. My name, or as I am called by so called “doctors”, is Anorexia. Anorexia Nervosa is my full name, but you may call me Ana. Hopefully we can become great partners. In the coming time, I will invest a lot of time in you, and I expect the same from you.

Your friends do not understand you. They are not truthful. In the past, when the insecurity has quietly gnawed away at your mind, and you asked them, “Do I look…fat?” and they answered “Oh no, of course not” you knew they were lying! Only I tell you the truth. Your parents, let’s not even go there! You know that they love you, and care for you, but part of that is just that they are your parents and are obligated to do so. I shall tell you a secret now: deep down inside themselves, they are disappointed with you. Their daughter, the one with so much potential, has turned into a fat, lazy, and undeserving girl.

But I am about to change all that.

I expect a lot from you. You are not allowed to eat much. It will start slowly: decreasing of fat intake, reading the nutrition labels, cutting out junk food, fried food, etc. For a while, the exercise will be simple: some running, perhaps some crunches and some sit-ups. Nothing too serious. Perhaps drop a few pounds, take a little off of that fat tub of a stomach. But it won’t be long before I tell you that it isn’t good enough.

I will expect you to drop your calorie intake and up your exercise. I will push you to the limit. You must take it because you cannot defy me! I am beginning to imbed myself into you. Pretty soon, I am with you always. I am there when you wake up in the morning and run to the scale. The numbers become both friend and enemy, and the frenzied thoughts pray for them to be lower than yesterday, last night, etc. You look into the mirror with dismay. You prod and poke at the fat that is there, and smile when you come across bone. I am there when you figure out the plan for the day: 400 calories, 2 hours exercise. I am the one figuring this out, because by now my thoughts and your thoughts are blurring together as one.

As parents, it is important to understand that the majority of online groups kids connect with are fun, beneficial, entertaining or educational, but exposure to unhealthy and destructive groups is always a risk.  Parents should sit down with their kids and check and see what groups they have joined or become fans of through their social networking sites.  Also, check the computer’s history to see if your kid has visited any sites that may be advancing destructive, violent or addictive behavior.  If you do find that your child is connected to one of these unhealthy groups, don’t overreact.  Try having a conversation with your kid first to determine whether it would be helpful to include a counselor or school administrator.  Of course, if you discover that the content on the group’s page is violent and if there are any signs that your child or other targets are at physical risk, contact local police immediately.