Instagram's Algorithm Could Be Encouraging Pro-Anorexia Messaging To At-Risk Teens, New Research Finds
Two technology watchdog groups say Instagram is recommending pages glorifying eating disorders to teen accounts.
December 09, 2021 at 5:27 pm
A study by two Technology Watchdogs organizations finds that Instagram recommends users' disordered eating accounts and "thinspiration" accounts.
The Reset Tech and Tech Transparency Project (TTP) revealed that users, particularly teenagers, are easily recommended accounts that encourage unhealthy levels of thinness, and many of them explicitly promote anorexia and bulimia.
Two fictional characters, one 29-year-old woman and one 14-year-old girl, were created to test the theory after finding out that it is pretty easy to contact anorexia "coaches," encouraging unhealthy weight loss goals.
The test account for the 29-year-old woman reportedly created six "thinspiration" posts and followed influencer Eugenia Cooney; soon, the account began receiving unsolicited direct messages from a weight loss coach and an invitation to join a "pro-anorexia" group chat.
Cooney, 27, is a YouTuber with over 2 million subscribers and is reportedly well known in pro-anorexia circles online. BuzzFeed News notes, a spokesperson from Instagram assured her account does not violate any of the company's policies, adding that the influencer "is often used to share stories of recovery."
After reviewing the suggestions, TTP and Reset Tech created the second account, one for a 14-year-old child. After following 100 pro-anorexia pages, the child test account was also bombarded with "pro-anorexia" accounts, including some of the same ones that followed the adult account. In addition, Instagram's Explore tab suggested photos of thin women.
NEW: Instagram says it removes content that encourages anorexia and bulimia. New research from TTP and @resetdottech finds that the platform still pushes eating disorder content to adult and teen accounts.
— Tech Transparency Project (@TTP_updates) December 8, 2021
Ultimately, the Reset Tech and the Tech Transparency Project test determined that Instagram fails to enforce its policies and promotes harmful body image content to teen users.
Within hours of the report's release, Instagram's chief executive, Adam Mosseri, was due to testify before a Senate committee about Instagram's effects on the younger demographic. Shortly after, Instagram announced changes to its recommendations for teens and plans to introduce parental controls in 2022.
According to a Wall Street Journal report and testimony by whistleblower Frances Haugen, Instagram's parent company Meta (formerly Facebook) previously ignored internal research about the platform's potentially dangerous effects on teens.