The extreme diet accounts were promoted to an Instagram account created by the staff of Senator Richard Blumenthal. The Connecticut senator’s 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 recommended by Instagram’s algorithm. 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 take 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] claiming to protect children or deleting accounts that may be harmful to them is absolute rubbish. ”
Blumenthal’s experience is not an anomaly and may come as a surprise to regular Instagram users who know how the platform’s algorithm recommends accounts that have determined that a user might be interested.
Blumenthal’s experiment goes even 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.
“We’re constantly looking for validation that we’re 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.
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 been around 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.
“Instagram’s dominance among the age group already at highest risk for eating disorders is one [issue]Keel said. let me tell 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”.
“There is no long term benefit to killing members of your larger user base, because eating disorders are incredibly dangerous, there is no way it is. [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. ”