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Research Shows Instagram Promotes Eating Disorder Content. Here’s What to Do About It.

The latest research shows that the social media platform recommends harmful accounts and posts to vulnerable young people.

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Content warning: This article discusses eating disorders and associated behaviors.

New research into Instagram reveals that young users are targeted with content that promotes eating disorder behaviors and dangerous body ideals. The research, by the nonpartisan Tech Transparency Project and tech group Reset, shows how Instagram recommends “pro-anorexia” and “thinspo” accounts and posts to users expressing an interest in weight loss—despite the platform’s rules and statements against such things.

Content that promotes disordered behaviors on Instagram and other platforms and targets high-risk populations is problematic on many levels, experts say. It’s especially problematic now, as reported eating disorder symptoms are on the rise, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.

It’s additionally problematic for populations at higher-risk of eating disorders, including adolescents, females, and long-distance runners, who face sport-specific body image pressures in addition to cultural ideals.

For example, one study found that 14 percent of elite adolescent athletes exhibit eating disorder behaviors, when compared to 5 percent of non-athletes. A 2020 study of 38 female high school long-distance runners found 76 percent reported disordered eating and eating disorders. While TikTok and other social networks have grown in popularity with younger athletes, an estimated seven out of 10 13- to 17-year-olds were using Instagram in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center.

As teens and adults, including a bevy of runners, spend more and more time on social media, specifically Instagram, this issue is worth a closer look.

Research has shown how damaging social media is to those with disordered eating thoughts or behaviors, as well as those with compulsive exercise behaviors, body image issues, and even those who aren’t aware of their risk of eating disorder, said registered dietitian Paula Quatromoni, professor and department chair of Health Sciences at Boston University.

“Social media promotes a culture of comparison where perfection is being portrayed as if it is attainable. With a consistently delivered message of ‘You are not enough,’ this toxic culture of comparison drives body dissatisfaction, dieting behavior, and unhealthy relationships with food and exercise—things that people with eating disorders already struggle with on a daily basis,” Quatromoni said. “Social media only makes it worse by constantly reminding you of what you already fear the most, that you are not good enough as you are and you desperately need to change and/or be better to be acceptable in the world.”

That these messages are targeted at vulnerable individuals by algorithms is unconscionable, Quatromoni said, adding, “the risk of eating disorders pervades all ages, genders, and body shapes and sizes. No body is immune to the damage of this kind of social media content or targeted profiling behavior.”

Instagram’s community guidelines say it’ll “remove or disable [self-injury] accounts if it’s reported to us.” Its parent company Meta (previously Facebook), has similar rules for Facebook: do not post content that promotes or provides instructions for eating disorders. Buried deep within Instagram’s Help Center, those struggling with eating disorders or negative body image may find a few tips and a link to the National Eating Disorder Association.

Yet the recent report, alongside several others this year, finds many examples of graphic images, blatant accounts, and even “coaches” encouraging extreme weight loss, disordered body ideals, and eating disorder (ED) behaviors.

The pro-ED content on social media is an extreme example of diet culture, which Maria Dalzot, a registered dietitian, defines as a pervasive system that prizes thinness, equating it to health. Diet culture promotes weight loss, regardless of context or social determinants of health. It oppresses people who don’t fit white-washed, Euro-centric ideals, she said. Plus, it’s a $71 billion industry.

On social media, diet culture “creates further stress, anxiety, and disordered thoughts around food,” Dalzot said. It even decreases food satisfaction—frowning upon the pleasure that food brings—and ties morality to food. At the core of this? The belief “that our bodies are not to be trusted, that they need to be controlled for the sake of health.”

Dalzot said these messages may make it “feel like that is all there is. It becomes a vacuum so to speak. It skews perception of reality.” This holds true for those following mostly running-related accounts, too.

What Social Media Users Can Do

To combat these limited perceptions, Dalzot said the first step is noticing. “You first need to have an awareness that what you’re seeing is actually toxic. It’s easy to take in these messages without even realizing it. They come off in ways that are so subtle.”

Note how certain people, platforms, and companies’ posts make you feel, she said. “What thoughts, feelings, sensations come up for you?…Do they make you question your self worth? Do they make you feel like your body isn’t good enough? That you are less than?”

Next, take a closer look at why, Dalzot said. “I’m feeling this way for a reason. Let’s investigate this with curiosity and compassion.” Compassion is key. “We are not the problem. We are not inadequate. It is this soup we’re swimming in. Others are benefiting in our insecurities,” she said.

This process may bring up emotions like sadness, grief, and anger. “That’s OK if these feelings come up. It’s a good thing, because we can start getting angry at the right things,” she said. “You should be angry. You’ve been taken advantage of. You’ve been preyed on. You’ve been targeted. You have every right to feel sad, every right to grieve.”

Rather than direct anger and frustration at, say, our own bodies, we can direct it at an account or platform. “That anger is a form of self-compassion. It’s a motivating tool; it makes curating a feed possible.”

Decoupling our self worth with what we hear and see in culture and social media may be a lifelong practice, she said. But it is possible, empowering, and steels individuals against toxic messaging. “It has no place to land anymore,” Dalzot said.

While practicing awareness, curiosity, and self-compassion is a process, Quatromoni and Dalzot have shared additional actions to combat harmful content on social media:

Be selective with your follows.

Do they inspire you and add positive emotions to your life? Try body positive and Health At Every Size accounts; friends and family; professionals working in fields that interest you; uplifting accounts that fuel your spiritual self. Think: animals, nature, art.

Start unfollowing accounts.

Unfollow accounts that make you feel uncomfortable, bad, or less “enough,” and those that offer advice without the proper credentials. Unfollow and/or block accounts that feature body shaming; images of emaciated bodies; promotion of dieting behaviors and products; promotion of extreme exercise or eating behaviors.

Report and block triggering and offensive content.

Think about other people who you care about who could be harmed by this content, said Quatromoni. “We need to think about our daughters, sisters, friends and mothers, and we also need to think about our sons, brothers, and fathers who might also be triggered by social media content,” she said. “Some people can dismiss it and pass it by, not giving it a second thought. Others will explore it, be drawn in deeper, become anxious or depressed because of it, and perseverate on it, worsening their overall well-being.”

Look for credentials.

Be aware that nutrition advice should come from registered dietitians and professional organizations. “A health or weight loss ‘coach’ has no specific training or content expertise…Health coaching is an entirely unregulated industry that does not require professional training or oversight,” Quatromoni said. Same with “nutritionist” or “nutrition coach.” If following professionals in the treatment and recovery space, seek those who specialize in eating disorder treatment, a Health At Every Size approach, and other appropriate niches, such as adolescent athletes.

Limit time spent on social media.

Limit exposure, daily and weekly. Or perhaps sign-off altogether.