Instagram promoted pages glorifying eating disorders on teenage accounts

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Instagram admitted to CNN over the weekend that those accounts had broken its rules against promoting extreme diets and should not have been allowed on the platform.

The Extreme Diet accounts were promoted to an Instagram account created by the staff of Senator Richard Blumenthal. The Connecticut Senator team registered an account as a 13-year-old girl and began following diet and eating disorder accounts (the latter of which are supposedly banned by Instagram). Soon, Instagram’s algorithm began to recommend almost exclusively that young teenage accounts follow more and more extreme diet accounts, the senator told CNN.

Blumenthal’s office shared with CNN a list of accounts that Instagram’s algorithm had recommended. After CNN sent a sample of this list of five accounts to Instagram for comment, the company deleted them, claiming they had all violated its policies against promoting eating disorders.

“We do not allow content that promotes or encourages eating disorders and we have removed accounts shared with us for breaking these rules,” a spokesperson for Facebook, the parent company of Instagram. “We are using technology and reports from our community to find and remove this content as quickly as possible, and we are always working to improve ourselves. We will continue to follow expert advice from academics and mental health organizations, 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. ”

Speaking to CNN on Monday, Blumenthal said: “This experiment shows very graphically how [Facebook’s] It is hogwash to pretend to protect children or to delete accounts that may be harmful to them. ”

Blumenthal’s experience is not an anomaly, and may come as little surprise to regular Instagram users who know how the platform’s algorithm recommends accounts that have determined that a user might be interested.

This follows a Wall Street Journal report based on internal Facebook documents that show the company is aware of the “toxic” effects its platforms, especially Instagram, can have on young people. Much of these reporting, and comments from Facebook that followed, focused on the negative impacts of social comparison with celebrities and popular personalities on the app – an issue Facebook says relates to the app. whole company and is not exclusive to its applications. According to the WSJ report, however, Facebook researchers acknowledged that “social comparison is worse on Instagram” than on some other platforms, as it focuses on the entire body and lifestyle of a woman. anybody.

Blumenthal’s experiment goes a step further, showing how quickly Instagram’s algorithm promotes content harmful to young users.

CNN opened an account last week using the same methodology as the senator’s office, also following some reports of extreme diets and eating disorders. On Sunday, Instagram promoted accounts with names like “Sweet Skinny,” “Prettily Skinny,” and “Wanna Be Skinny” to the experimental CNN account which was also recorded as belonging to a 13-year-old girl. CNN reached out to Instagram to ask if these accounts also violate its policies.

The danger of eating disorder content on Instagram

Viewing the content of these extreme diet accounts – which included, for example, extremely thin body images and information about a user’s “current weight” against their “target weight” – can serve as validation. for users already predisposed to unhealthy behaviors, according to experts.

“It’s called confirmation bias, where people tend to look for information that confirms what they already believe to be true,” said Pamela Keel, professor of psychology at Florida State University, who studied how Instagram use can contribute to eating disorders. While confirmation bias is often discussed in the context of other social media issues, such as vaccine misinformation, it could also affect “someone who already thinks they must be thin, or thinner. , and look for other people to agree with them that this is an important thing, ”she said.
Senator Richard Blumenthal interviewed Antigone Davis, Facebook's head of global security, during a hearing on the company's impact on young users last week.

“We are constantly looking for validation that we are right, even though that validation is really, really harmful to our personal health,” Keel added, raising the stakes for Instagram to avoid promoting such content.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Facebook researchers who have studied its effects on young users over the past three years have found that Instagram can harm the mental health and body image of young users, especially among teenage girls. An internal document cited by the newspaper said that for teenage girls who had recently experienced body image issues, the app exacerbated those feelings for one in three of them.
At a Senate hearing last week, Facebook’s global security chief Antigone Davis criticized the Journal’s information, calling the Facebook documents he cited “no explosive research.” She added that the company has found “that more teenage girls are finding Instagram useful.” Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who leaked the documents to the Journal and lawmakers, is due to testify before the same Senate committee on Tuesday.

Instagram has also rebuffed claims about its role in perpetuating harmful behavior, saying social comparison is a widespread problem and potentially problematic images are also available elsewhere. Indeed, “pro-anorexia” online communities have existed for years, before the rise of Instagram. However, Instagram’s wide reach among young women and girls means that such content posted on its platform can be particularly dangerous, according to Keel.

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“Instagram’s predominance among the age group already at highest risk for eating disorders is one [issue]Keel said. me give you more. … It’s just a perfect storm. ”

Chelsea Kronengold, communications manager for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), added that while Instagram and other social media sites may not cause eating disorders and other body image issues, “we know that it is certainly a significant risk factor in these situations”.

Following the Journal’s report last month, Instagram detailed several new features it plans to implement to address mental health issues (some of which were developed in partnership with NEDA), including “nudges Which might encourage users to change their viewing habits if they ‘I recently reviewed potentially problematic content. The company said it wanted to prevent potential triggering of content while still allowing users recovering from eating disorders to discuss their experiences – a potentially difficult balance to strike, experts say.

“There is no long term benefit to killing members of your larger user base, because eating disorders are incredibly dangerous, there is no way that is what [Instagram] wants, ”Keel said. “My only request would be simply to be more transparent. You follow that, you try to do things to minimize the risk to your site and just be more transparent about what you’re trying to do. ”

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, NEDA (in the US) offers phone, text, and chat services on their website. website and Beat (in UK) has phone and chat services available on their website.


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