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Instagram promoted pages glorifying eating disorders to teen accounts

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30: Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) looks on as Antigone Davis, Director, Global Head of Safety, Facebook testifies virtually during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security hearing on children's online safety and mental health on Capitol Hill on September 30, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tom Brenner-Pool/Getty Images)

(CNN) — “I have to be thin,” “Eternally starved,” “I want to be perfect.” These are the names of accounts Instagram’s algorithms promoted to an account registered as belonging to a 13-year-old girl who expressed interest in weight loss and dieting.

Proof that Instagram is not only failing to crack down on accounts promoting extreme dieting and eating disorders, but actively promotes those accounts, comes as Instagram and its parent company Facebook are facing intense scrutiny over the impact they have on young people’s mental health.

Instagram acknowledged this weekend that those accounts broke its rules against the promotion of extreme dieting, and that they shouldn’t have been allowed on the platform.

The extreme dieting accounts were promoted to an Instagram account set up by Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s staff. The Connecticut Senator’s team registered an account as a 13-year-old girl and proceeded to follow some dieting and pro-eating disorder accounts (the latter of which are supposed to be banned by Instagram). Soon, Instagram’s algorithm began almost exclusively recommending the young teenage account should follow more and more extreme dieting accounts, the Senator said.

Blumenthal’s office shared a list of accounts Instagram’s algorithm had recommended. After being sent a sample from this list of five accounts to Instagram for comment, the company removed them, saying all of them broke its policies against encouraging eating disorders.

“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 for Facebook, Instagram’s parent company said. “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. We’ll 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.”

Blumenthal said on Monday: “This experience shows very graphically how (Facebook’s) claims to protect children or take down accounts that may be dangerous to them are absolute hogwash.”

Blumenthal’s experiment is not an anomaly, and may come as little surprise to regular uses of Instagram who are familiar with how the platform’s algorithm recommends accounts that it has determined a user might be interested in.

It follows reporting by the Wall Street Journal 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 that reporting, and Facebook’s ensuing commentary, has centered on the negative impacts of social comparison to celebrities and popular figures on the app — a problem Facebook says is society-wide, and not exclusive to its apps. According to the WSJ reporting, however, Facebook researchers acknowledged that “social comparison is worse on Instagram” than some other platforms because it focuses on the entire body and a person’s lifestyle.

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

CNN set up an account last week using the same methodology as the Senator’s office, also following some extreme dieting and pro-eating disorder accounts. On Sunday, Instagram promoted accounts with names like “Sweet Skinny,” “Prettily Skinny,” and “Wanna Be Skinny” to the experiment CNN account that was also registered as belonging to a 13-year-old girl. CNN has reached out to Instagram to ask if these accounts also violate its policies.

The danger of eating disorder content on Instagram

Viewing content from these extreme dieting accounts — which included, for example, images of extremely thin bodies and information about a user’s “current weight” versus their “goal weight” — can act as validation for users already predisposed to unhealthy behaviors, experts say.

“It’s called confirmation bias, where people tend to seek information that confirms what they already believe is true,” said Pamela Keel, a psychology professor at Florida State University, who has studied how using Instagram can contribute to eating disorders. While confirmation bias is often discussed in the context of other issues on social media, such as vaccine misinformation, it could also affect “somebody who’s already thinking that they need to be thin, or thinner, and is looking for other people to agree with them that that’s an important thing,” she said.

“We’re constantly looking for validation that we’re right, even if 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 researchers at Facebook who have studied its effects on young users over the past three years found that Instagram can damage young users’ mental health and body image, especially among teen girls. One internal document cited by the newspaper said that for teen girls who had recently experienced body image issues, the app exacerbated those feelings for one in three of them.

In a Senate hearing last week, Facebook’s global head of safety Antigone Davis criticized the Journal’s reporting, calling the Facebook documents it cited “not bombshell research.” She added that the company has found “that more teen girls actually find Instagram helpful.” Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who leaked the documents to the Journal and lawmakers, is set to testify to the same Senate committee on Tuesday.

Instagram has also pushed back on claims about its role in perpetuating harmful behaviors by saying that social comparison is a widespread issue and that potentially problematic images are also available elsewhere. Indeed, “pro-anorexia” online communities have been around for years, predating the rise of Instagram. However, Instagram’s broad reach among young women and girls means that such content posted to its platform can be especially dangerous, according to Keel.

“The dominance of Instagram among the age group that was already at greatest risk of eating disorders is one (issue),” Keel said. “You’ve got a vicious cycle: You’ve got a group who are at elevated risk of these problems demonstrating to this artificial intelligence that this is what grabs their attention, and then that artificial intelligence says, ‘Here let me give you more of this.’ … It’s just a perfect storm.”

Chelsea Kronengold, communications lead 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 it’s definitely a strong risk factor in these situations.”

Following the Journal’s reporting last month, Instagram detailed several new features it plans to implement to address mental health concerns (some of which were developed in partnership with NEDA), including “nudges” that could encourage users to change up their viewing habits if they’ve recently looked at potentially problematic content. The company has said it wants to prevent potentially triggering content while still allowing users in recovery from eating disorders to discuss their experiences — a potentially difficult balance to strike, experts say.

“There’s no long-term benefit to killing members of your largest user base, because eating disorders are incredibly dangerous, there’s no way that’s what (Instagram) wants,” Keel said. “My one request would be just to be more transparent. You’re tracking this, you’re trying to do things to minimize the risk of 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 U.S.) has phone, text, and chat services available on its website and Beat (in the UK) has phone and chat services available on its website.

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