"Student Bodies," student selves

A new online program hopes to prevent eating disorders among undergrads. But do Internet-based interventions stand a chance?


Page Rockwell
November 1, 2006 6:00PM (UTC)

Experts estimate that around 4 percent of girls and young women have anorexia and/or bulimia, with an additional 4 percent believed to struggle with subclinical eating disorders. (Eating disorders are 10 times more common in women than they are in men, though of course many men also struggle with eating disorders.) For those who suffer from these conditions, the consequences can be severe: Anorexia is deadlier than any other psychiatric illness -- 10 percent of those hospitalized for the condition will eventually die from it -- and bulimia can cause lasting damage to sufferers' stomachs, esophagi and mouths. Both disorders can cause other complications like dehydration and cardiac problems, and may dangerously disrupt electrolyte levels. And, unfortunately, eating disorders are notoriously hard to cure.

For that reason, researchers are increasingly investigating preventive treatment options for those with known risk factors. (For a list of some emotional, behavioral, social and physical risk factors, go here; for previous Broadsheet coverage of genetic factors and anorexia, go here.) Now, the Washington Post reports, an eight-week online program called "Student Bodies," pioneered by a research team at Stanford University, is having a positive impact on some test subjects.

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Initially, this happy bulletin leaves me feeling a little skeptical. It is absolutely great news that experts are seeing results with low-cost, high-efficacy options for treating eating disorders. But peppily named programs like "Food, Mood and Attitude" and "Full of Ourselves" seem destined to be the butt of on-campus jokes. Plus, over the long term, Internet-based treatment options don't seem to offer much in the way of human supervision or accountability. University of Texas psychologist Eric Stice told the Post, "I can't think of a single computer-based eating disorders program that can hold a candle to these results" -- but is that really saying much?

Well, maybe. A recent study put 480 female college students through the "Student Bodies" program and monitored them afterward, and though program participants generally didn't fare better than those in the control group, the program did seem to benefit young women in "two high-risk subgroups": those who had body-mass indices over 25 and those who exhibited dangerous behaviors like excessive exercise, laxative abuse or purging. Two years after participating in the program, none of the study subjects with body-mass indices over 25 had developed eating disorders, though 12 percent of their peers in the control group had. The Post further reports that, among those who "reported problem behaviors such as self-induced vomiting at the start of the study, 14 percent had developed an eating disorder at the two-year mark, compared with 30 percent of the control group."

The researchers behind "Student Bodies" may make the program available to other schools and universities, and that's great news. For school administrators dealing with lots of students and tight budgets, Stice says the idea of an easily disseminated prevention tool is downright "tantalizing." Even considering the program's positive results, though, the prospect of administering the program to students who demonstrate risk factors but do not yet suffer from full-blown eating disorders seems daunting, especially since sufferers tend to be secretive about their symptoms. I hope university administrators don't come to view online programs as a replacement for in-person monitoring and counseling.


Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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