Maybe you’re like me and the words “big tech is out to hurt your body image” have sounded like the rantings of some desperate people, determined to eradicate technology and go back to the days of the flip phone. But, with the slew of lawsuits claiming social media created eating disorders, I did an experiment with my CEO, Jeff, in order to learn the truth. We took an unused Instagram account and hopped on to see for ourselves.
Immediately, the first reel greeted us with a perfectly toned woman posing for an inspiration video.
We sat and discussed the body image that it promoted and scrolled on when the reel was over. As we went on, more of these reels filled our feed.
“What I ate in a day”.
Harmless things, right?
Suddenly a math video popped up in the reels. UGH.
Personally, I shed enough tears over calculus 2 in college that I would’ve blasted past - but Jeff loves that stuff. He watched the whole video and scrolled on. After only ten minutes, our entire section of suggested reels had changed. It was clogged with women and men in perfectly toned bodies sprinkled with math-hacking videos.
In that short amount of time, the Instagram algorithm adapted to what we were watching and shoved more of that content in our faces.
Even though I don't often struggle with low self esteem, I walked away feeling an overwhelming sense of YUCK about myself after seeing those extra thin and toned bodies.
How did this even happen?
It comes down to 3 factors.
- Instagram has this special little feature in its algorithm called “dwell time”. It observes when you stop scrolling on a post or reel and promotes similar content to you the longer you stay on the original post. You don’t even have to interact with it for Instagram to see you hung around. This signals to the algorithm you might be interested in this content and, because its goal is to keep you on its platform, it’s will show you more posts like it.
- There’s a sneaky workaround on all social media platforms called “Algospeak”. Although Instagram has boasted recently that it’s cracked down on eating disorder content, profiles get around this restriction by using specialized hashtags that seem harmless. Do “#Thinspo”, “#ABCDiet”, “#ANA” sound familiar? Yep, you’re looking at some kind of eating disorder content that’s gotten around the moderation. You don’t even have to interact with it. Just by stopping on it, Instagram will see that you’re potentially interested in diets and weight loss and will push more of that content into your feed.
- Even with Instagram’s promise to knuckle down on eating disorder content, the solution is only mildly effective because many accounts skip hashtags altogether to avoid moderation. By employing Algospeak and leaving out hashtags that might attract scrutiny, these accounts get to post their harmful content unrestricted. If these posts about eating disorders gather engagement and build dwell time, Instagram’s algorithm will organically pick them up and show them to other users it thinks might be interested.
Here are the hard facts…
This isn’t just speculation or anecdotal evidence. Two pivotal studies scientifically tested this hypothesis with shocking results.
Ysabel Gerrard’s shocking study, Beyond the hashtag: Circumventing content moderation on social media, revealed just how ineffective Instagram’s content moderation strategies are. In case you don’t want to go through all 40 pages, here are the key results:
- “Many users are aware that pro-ED (eating disorder) content is a target for moderation, and one of the most obvious ways to deflect attention is to simply not use hashtags…only 779 of the 2612 posts I collected from Instagram and Tumblr included one or more hashtags.” In other words, 70% of those posts intentionally excluded hashtags to avoid being flagged by social media platforms.
- Because eating disorder hashtags are scrutinized, “members of this community have developed a set of non-tagged signals to indicate their identities to like-minded users.”
- “Once I started behaving like a pro-ED user on Instagram and Tumblr, these platforms also started to recommend such content to me”, even going so far as to promote content focused on eating habits like fasting challenges (i.e. 1 like = 1 hour of fasting) or more requests for anorexia buddies.
SHOCKING, right? Well, here’s another one.
Fair Play For Kids conducted a study called, Designing for Disorder: Instagram’s Pro-eating Disorder Bubble, with similarly disturbing results. To summarize their main points, they found:
- “There are around 90,000 active pro-eating disorder accounts on Instagram… [that] publish content which “encourage restrictive diets” and promote “thinspiration” including “positive imagery of extremely underweight people.”
- “As many as 20 million Instagram users could be hit by pro-anorexia content as a result of the app’s recommendation algorithm”. If those users spend time viewing or interacting with that eating disorder content, the algorithm will take over and continue recommending such harmful post.
- “The content is being promoted to children as young as 13 via recommendations generated by the platform’s algorithm. Children as young as 9 or 10 were found to be following the accounts.” Because bullying or normal puberty can make them feel strange about their bodies, kids and teens are at an increased risk of developing eating disorders from the negative effects of this content.
Yikes, what do we do next?
First, take a breath with me. In your nose. Out your mouth. I know it’s scary but it’s not hopeless.
There are eating disorder symptoms and if you’re paying attention, you can step in for early prevention.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t just affect girls; boys are at risk of suffering from distorted body image and developing eating disorders as well!
Here are things experts recommend watching out for in your teens:
- Excessive exercise, even when injured or sick, and getting very upset if exercising isn’t possible.
- Choosing to skip foods they used to enjoy, replacing normal meals with fluids, or suddenly becoming obsessed with healthy eating.
- Developing obsessive eating patterns such as eating extremely slowly, cutting up food into tiny pieces, or eating at precisely the same hour every day.
- Worrying constantly about their food intake.
- Using words like “ugly”, “fat”, or “bad” to describe their appearance and showing an intense fear of gaining weight.
- Becoming secretive around their eating habits by saying they’ve already eaten if they haven’t or hiding food that hasn’t been eaten.
- Withdrawing and isolating from usual activities and friends.
- Worrying about eating food in front of other people.
So, if you notice these signs in your kid and feel panicked, I get it but you HAVE to do this first before jumping into a conversation.
Take a moment to restore your ‘emotional sobriety.’
Without this step, you could rush headlong into a hard conversation that corners your kids and eliminates any of their desire to be honest with you.
Consider how you’d want to be approached over a difficult or even shameful topic and give your kid that same respect, even if it takes multiple conversations to get to the heart of the issue. Think about it.
What makes the most impact?
One huge conversation that’s been rushed into? Or multiple small ones that your kid feels safe having?
Now that you’re armed with your new knowledge of both the dangers and the signs of eating disorders and the approach to take when talking to your kid about it, you’re ready to start tackling the issue of distorted body image.
It’s going to be a process but you can be your kid’s biggest source of encouragement in dealing with this issue. You’ve got this.
The Aqua One was made for moments like this.
For the first time, you're no longer in the dark. Your Parent Dashboard shows you every action taken on the smartphone so you can see if your kid views content encouraging disordered eating. PLUS, their Mental Health Check answers give you real-time snapshots of their emotional health so you can take action if it starts to suffer. Say goodbye to blind spots in your kid's digital world.