Groups of young women are using the app to share tips, gain ‘thinspiration’ and find anorexia coaches
The way that technology has brought together groups of people – outsiders, LGBTQ communities, women, people of colour – and allowed them to speak, engage with each other and learn, is undeniably a positive. But it has a dark side too. Since dial-up became omnipresent in western homes, forums and blogs offered anorexic sufferers community and support; but the freedom of discussion has also come with negatives.
Tumblr has been a useful tool for bringing activism and arts to a young grassroots audience, but it’s also homed some dark "thinspiration" content. Despite some efforts from sites like Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram to block searches, posting and reblogging of "thinspo" images, they’re still populated with images of ribs, as well as pro-ana (anorexia) and pro-mia (bulimia) pictures. Sites dedicated exclusively to "thinspiration" exist, as do pro-ana blogs. Wherever there's online growth or new tech, the forums and communities will follow.
Now it appears that the app Whisper, with a reported 10 million users each month, is attracting young people who want to discuss and encourage something that has dangerous health implications.
Whisper once billed itself as "the safest place on the internet". Last year, it hit headlines for allegedly tracking the location of its users, including some who had opted out of geolocation services. The company always vehemently denied the accusation and the Guardian was forced to backtrack on its story.
Despite the allegations, the idea of anonymity is Whisper's allure. You don’t register for an account, provide names, email addresses or give any identifying information. It allows you to post messages, which are displayed superimposed over an image, like a greeting card or meme. Images are suggested based on your text, or you can upload your own. Users can also send messages or chat. If desired, you can set your radius and see messages from users close to you.
A quick search on Whisper and you’ll find users talking about ana and mia (short for anorexia and bulimia), many of them asking for tips from other sufferers or posting their own advice.
These regions of the app’s content read like an ad board for ana coaches or buddies, complete with "thinspo" pictures, or selfies that appear to have been uploaded by Whisper users themselves. An ana coach is someone who helps you to lose weight, gives you advice and spurs you on. A worrying number of anorexia sufferers or allies are advertising themselves as “coaches” or “buddies”. Due to the app’s anonymity attribute, these people could be anyone.
Perhaps people using the app in this way isn’t that surprising. Wherever there is a forum for people to connect, they will. But the lack of online moderation on forums and internet discussions like these is uncomfortable. The NHS revealed last month that the number of teenagers being admitted to hospital with eating disorders has nearly doubled in three years. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has laid the blame for this firmly with social media.
Whisper’s 130 moderators do monitor content in order to ban dangerous users. In theory, the mods know where you are via your phone and could report anyone who confesses to a serious crime to the police. In an interview with USA Today, Whisper CEO Michael Heyward said, "we’re big believers in free speech, but you can’t yell fire in a crowded building." The article also states that the Whisper mods take down anything that is "bullying or slanderous".
When we reached out to Whisper’s press team for comment, a spokesperson told us: "Whisper has an extremely proactive approach to content moderation – we actively moderate Whisper content 24/7 and a slew of keywords, such as "thinspo", are banned."
However, when we tried to post a picture containing this term – and many other pro-ana terms – it worked. Furthermore, when you type in these words to create your post Whisper suggests background images of "thigh gaps", emaciated ribs and tiny legs. Just a quick search of "thinspo" or "pro-ana" will bring up users’ posts discussing these terms.
With eating disorders being such a damaging, serious issue – we’d like to see more being done to prevent the promotion of highly dangerous body images.