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Photography Georgia de Lotz, via Unsplash

Instagram admits that it promoted pro-eating disorder content to teens

The photo sharing app has acknowledged that it failed to remove dangerous accounts, and has instead actually recommended them to users

Instagram has admitted that it failed to remove pro-eating disorder accounts from the app, and, in some cases, even promoted these pages to teenagers.

The admission came after Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal’s staff set up a fake account, which they registered to a 13-year-old girl. After following several diet and pro-eating disorder pages, the account’s algorithm almost immediately recommended more extreme dieting accounts.

Speaking to CNN, Instagram acknowledged that the accounts violated its guidelines, and should have been removed by the platform. “We do not allow content that promotes or encourages eating disorders and we removed the accounts shared with us for breaking these rules,” a spokesperson said, after Blumenthal’s office sent a list of the offending pages.

“We use technology and reports from our community to find and remove this content as quickly as we can, and we’re always working to improve,” Instagram continued. “We’ll continue to follow expert advice from academics and mental health organisations, like the National Eating Disorder Association, to strike the difficult balance between allowing people to share their mental health experiences while protecting them from potentially harmful content.”

Instagram has previously been criticised for its moderation efforts, which appear to be enforced strictly on nudity, while the likes of far-right, racist, and pro-eating disorder content slip through the net.

The Facebook-owned photo app isn’t alone in these failings. Last year, TikTok also faced its fair share of controversy, after it was alleged the video sharing platform was censoring Black Lives Matter content, promoting anti-semitic memes, suppressing posts by users it deemed “ugly”, poor, or disabled, and promoting weight loss ads.

In September 2020, TikTok announced that it would be banning the latter, after users reported seeing an increase in the harmful videos on their For You pages. Speaking to Dazed at the time, 22-year-old Sacha*, who suffers from a eating disorder and body dysmorphia, said: “I use TikTok to destress and to have a laugh, but it’s turned into yet another place for triggering content. It just encourages me to behave destructively.” In December, it was revealed that pro-eating disorder content is still rife on the platform, despite the new measures.

Earlier this year, a similarly dangerous trend cropped up on TikTok, which saw users show how their bodies change (specifically, bloat) after eating – something that, while it’s intended to be body positive, can be damaging to someone with disordered eating. “The focus is still on body checking and obsessing about the size and appearance of your stomach,” counselor Dr Laura Choate told Dazed Beauty in May. “These images could be highly triggering in that they feature thin and sculpted women who are focused on the appearance of a body part, instead of focusing on health and wellness and a myriad of other things that are more meaningful and purposeful than achieving a particular body size.”

While pro-eating disorder content may still be scarily rife on social media, there is now a rise in influencers documenting their recovery journeys. “I would definitely say that I am further along (in my recovery) than I probably would be without my channel,” ‘recovery influencer’ Rebecca Leung told Dazed in 2019. “It only takes a day or two of not challenging yourself for your eating disorder to slip right back in, so it’s great that I have a schedule to make these videos. It’s a very helpful tool for reminding myself of what I need to be doing to help myself.”

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, you can contact Beat in the UK here, and NEDA in the US here.