detecting and addressing eating disorders by monitoring students’ physical and online behavior

If you encountered a student doing a web search for the “ABC diet,” cabbage soup diet and a BMI calculator while in the library at lunch time, you might think he or she was doing a research project for health class. But what if that student was also losing hair and had bloodshot eyes? Would that make you, the adult, think twice?

Doing web searches for diets, skipping lunch and the above physical symptoms can be signs of an eating disorder. That student would most likely be in need of help.

Eating disorders continue to be a prevalent issue with young people across the United States. Here are some statistics to put this into perspective:

These staggering facts tell us that we can’t ignore what is going on with young people in regards to eating disorders. Early detection has the potential to make an immense difference in the success of treatment.

Adults in the education field can do something to help. Teachers, counselors and other school officials are around adolescents for the majority of the school week. This means they have the chance to witness signs of eating disorders and thus, they have the chance to intervene. We partnered with The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) to provide suggestions for detecting and addressing eating disorders among students.

Monitor student physical behavior.

Keep an eye out for symptoms of potential eating disorders (ED) by looking to physical signs. Does the student: Obsess about dieting? Talk about calories, fat and carbs constantly? Get anxious around food? Work out obsessively and panic if unable to work out? Skip meals regularly? Run to the bathroom directly after eating?

These behaviors are documented as signs of ED. Additionally, adults can look and listen for signs of tangible physical symptoms, such as hair loss, bloodshot eyes and sensitivity to cold. ED can commonly be coupled with other psychological symptoms, such as depression, low self-esteem, withdrawal and perfectionism.

Monitor student online behavior.

Often, a student suffering from an ED will show signs by Internet behavior. They may spend lunch time looking at foods rather than eating them. They may do extensive searches for diets, weight loss supplements and laxatives online. They may scan one of the thousands of sites that encourage eating disorders online; these sites can be difficult to recognize as harmful at first.

By keeping a close eye on what students read and the conversations they have online — coupled with recognizing aforementioned physical signs and symptoms — can lead to intervention. ANAD recommends having good Internet monitoring software in place that enables administrators to block certain websites and track any website that has been visited.

Characteristics of Pro-Ana, Pro-Mia and Pro-ED Sites

  • Glamorize or idolize images of emaciated or very thin individuals
  • Imply food and weight are the enemy
  • Encourage and teach dangerous eating disorder behaviors
  • Promote thinness at any cost while denying seriousness of illness
  • Insist that eating disorders are choices, rather than an illness
  • Attempt to mask toxicity by being exclusive and elite


When the signs are there, intervene.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The sooner the eating disorder is recognized, the sooner treatment can begin and recovery can occur. In addition, the person with an eating disorder is frequently in a lot of emotional (and sometimes physical) distress. An intervention is the first step in getting him or her on the road to recovery.

Why should you be the one to do it? Because you care. You don’t have to be a parent or relative to intervene. Friends, educators and mentors who spend time with adolescents can have just as strong of an impact on a young life as parents do. These are the people who often play important roles in the recovery of a young person.  

A careful approach is best, though. If you are going to intervene with a student, have a plan. ANAD provides this resource document that outlines how to plan an intervention and where to get more help.

How online monitoring software helps detect and address harmful behavior  

Monitoring is an Internet safety feature that protects students online in network and classroom management software. Rather than just blocking and filtering inappropriate websites, the monitoring function uses lists of words or phrases to capture and identify inappropriate and harmful activity on PCs, laptops and other digital devices, such as the pro-eating disorder sites.

Once phrases are captured, the software creates a screenshot and alerts educators of the questionable conversation. This alert presents the teacher with a way to confront the situation. As new slang terms and phrases trend, keyword lists are updated with new words, phrases and definitions. This monitoring function in place provides insights into searches for pro-eating disorder websites or other topics that exhibit symptoms of having an ED. For a more thorough explanation of behavior management software, Internet safety monitoring and Impero Education Pro, download our whitepaper here.

The bottom line

Four out of 10 people in the US have either personally experienced an eating disorder or know someone who has. Watching for physical signs and monitoring online activity are the first steps in detecting and intervening in this potentially fatal disorder. If you think you or someone you know is battling an eating disorder, don’t be afraid to talk to someone about it.

The ANAD helpline at (630) 577-1330, operates 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Time, Monday through Friday and can help you find the treatment to fit your needs. If you prefer email, please contact us through