Pro-anorexia websites offering tips on extreme dieting are nothing new, but their growth on social networking sites is a disturbing new twist and brings them within reach of a wider audience.I can only imagine the anguish the parent of a child or teen with anorexia or bulimia would experience reading something like this. Social network sites are now so commonplace among teens. New groups pop up on Facebook every day. Youngsters (and adults) are looking online for health information, and for real-life stories and support from people who have common experiences. It's just too easy for a child suffering from these conditions to have unfettered access to this. Parents know to look for stalkers online, but now they have to worry about "health" information?
Facebook has done an incredible job building an outstanding social networking utility, and by opening up their platform to developer-generated applications, even the founders of Facebook can't predict its power and growth. However, with that power comes an incredible responsibility. The larger ISP's were reasonably effective in shutting down many of the most harmful "pro-ana" sites. The advent of massive social network sites brought this problem back. The capacity exists on facebook not only to send kids harmful messages, but to actually develop IT-based tools designed to "help" kids develop "strategies" to maintain this condition. Parents have to pay even closer attention to what their kids are doing online -- a "healthy diet and lifestyle" group or application may not be what it appears at a glance.
Facebook clearly has some liability and responsibility here as well, and there are a few options. For example, Wikipedia is monitored by a cadre of volunteers that fight against "vandalism" and inaccuracies. It's not a perfect system, but it's a model the for-profit Facebook should consider. Clearly this is a proceed-with-caution, free speech issue, but I really can't think of anything more important than health and safety.
While some might move to shut down social networks (or keep kids away), I think the answer is actually more engagement, not less - if for no other reason than these should not be the only voices in a discussion online, and they're not going away. I see two takeaway lessons here for companies in the food, nutrition, and health industries.
First, these companies need to move into the social network space strategically and quickly. The audience is there, and frankly, many in the audience may not be anywhere else online. While they may not be visiting blogs or branded health sites, they're still looking for the information companies provide. Seed the environment with facts, not over-the-top marketing platitudes. The audience is there and they're talking about the relevant issues and companies anyway. Be transparent part of the discussion, and part of the solution. This is your audience. Be where your audience is.
Second, vigilance is an absolute necessity. Keep track of what's happening on Facebook and other social network sites. Monitor the groups that are starting up. Companies won't necesarily be notified in a Google alert if someone is talking about you or your issues. Take action and notify the administrators when there's something wrong. Make sure the company is providing the facts and is responding to questions directly in the environment. Companies monitor everything else that's said about them - this should be no different.