It’s a promising development – but could it end up doing more harm than good?
On Tuesday this week, TikTok announced that they were updating their community guidelines to promote the “safety, security, and well-being” of their users. The changes include a ban on deadnaming, misgendering, and misogyny, as well as removing content that promotes disordered eating.
Although TikTok officially does not allow content promoting or glorifying eating disorders, and enforces this using a combination of human and AI moderation, the app has been criticised in the past for allowing ‘pro-ana’ content to proliferate. In response to this criticism, in recent years TikTok has attempted to get a handle on harmful content on the platform: in 2020, the company imposed restrictions on weight-loss ads on the platform, and in 2021 they launched a new feature which offers a helpline phone number to users who search hashtags relating to eating disorders. But, naturally, some harmful content still slips through the net, while videos that document users’ recoveries often get wrongfully removed.
In a bid to make the app a safer place, the company has stated that they will now begin removing videos that promote disordered eating symptoms like short-term fasting and overexercising. “We’re making this change, in consultation with eating disorders experts, researchers, and physicians, as we understand that people can struggle with unhealthy eating patterns and behaviour without having an eating disorder diagnosis,” reads a statement on the company’s website. “This is an incredibly nuanced area that’s difficult to consistently get right, and we’re working to train our teams to remain alert to a broader scope of content.”
TikTok is right to draw attention to the fact that this is “an incredibly nuanced area”: the moderation of content that deals with mental illnesses such as eating disorders is difficult to get right. There’s often a blurred line between content that ‘promotes’ eating disorders and content which is posted by those documenting their recovery. What if a user uploads a ‘What I Eat In A Day’ video which features an amount of food that is an improvement for them, but to anyone else seems an alarmingly small amount? How can you distinguish between ‘thinspo’ content, and content featuring a body that just happens to be thin? What even constitutes ‘promotion’ of an eating disorder? It’s vital that questions like these are addressed and acknowledged when the mental health of real, human TikTok users – often young women – is at stake.
Dr Ysabel Gerrard is a Lecturer in Digital Media and Society at the University of Sheffield. She was disheartened to see TikTok lump this announcement about tackling pro-eating disorder content together with the news that they are also tackling hate speech on the platform. “What does that do for the stigmatisation of eating disorders?” she tells Dazed, adding that moderating content relating to eating disorders can be an incredibly sensitive process: “It can be really difficult to tell when someone is in recovery and posting content about their journey, because recovery can be messy. It’s not a linear journey: sometimes you have a bit of a setback.”
Dr Gerrard, who also sits on Meta’s Suicide and Self-Injury Advisory Board, highlights that the announcement ultimately throws up more questions than it answers. “When they say they’re going to crack down on eating disorders: what does that mean? Who decides what is information about healthy eating and weight loss, versus unhealthy information about weight loss and dieting? They haven’t really said what they’re doing and they need to be more forthcoming about specifically what it is that they’re cracking down on,” she says.
“It can be really difficult to tell when someone is in recovery and posting content about their journey, because recovery can be messy” – Dr Ysabel Gerrard
Dr Gerrard adds that things are further complicated by the fact that humour, irony, and satire abound on TikTok. “A lot of the videos are self-deprecating but these might be taken to be ‘promotion’,” she says. “I’m just worried they’re going to get to a point where they take down anything even vaguely related to eating disorders, especially when we have seen historically that they are taking the wrong things down.”
This ambiguity surrounding what is and isn’t okay on TikTok makes it hard for users to get to grips with what they’re allowed to post. This confusion can cause further harm for users who use the app to find community and support while in recovery: Dr Gerrard stresses that if a user’s video is removed or their account is banned, it has the potential to make their mental state so much worse. “Taking someone’s video down is also taking down a list of people who liked it and a list of people who commented on it. That is a potential support network,” she explains. “It’s really dangerous to just remove it. You’re not just removing the video, you’re removing the people attached to that video.”
It’s an unequivocal positive that TikTok is seeking to make the platform a safer place for its users, and Dr Gerrard stresses that she acknowledges and respects the hard work that numerous clinicians, academics, and experts are putting in to reduce the amount of harmful content on TikTok. But will the app’s moderators be sensitive to all these nuances when it comes to deciding what constitutes content that ‘promotes’ disordered eating? Will they be more transparent with exactly how they plan to moderate these videos? Only time will tell.