At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Michelle noticed that her teenage daughters were spending a lot more time on Instagram.
The girls felt isolated and bored during the lockdown, recalled the Arizona mum, who asked to be identified by her first name to protect the privacy of her children. She hoped that social media could be a way for them to stay in touch with their friends and their community.
But over the months, the girls stumbled upon pro-diet, pro-exercise, and ultimately pro-eating disorder hashtags on the social media app. It all started with photos and videos of “health challenge” recipes, Michelle said, which led to more similar content in their feeds. Six months later, both had started restricting their food intake. Her eldest daughter developed “severe anorexia” and was almost admitted to a health facility, Michelle said. Michelle attributes their spiral in large part to the influence of social media.
“Of course Instagram doesn’t cause eating disorders,” Michelle told The Guardian. “These are complex diseases caused by a combination of genetic, neurobiological and other factors. But it does help trigger them and keep teens trapped in this completely toxic culture. “
The testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last week revealed what parents of teens with unhealthy eating behaviors due to body image fears have long known: Instagram has a substantial negative impact on the mental health of some girls regarding issues such as body image and self-esteem. .
Internal research shared by Haugen with the Wall Street Journal found that the platform sends some girls on a “downward spiral.” According to a March 2020 research presentation, “32% of teenage girls said when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
Facebook challenged the qualification of its internal searches on Instagram. “It is simply not correct that this research shows that Instagram is ‘toxic’ to teenage girls,” the company said in a statement last month. “Research has actually shown that many teens we heard from felt that using Instagram helps them when they are dealing with the kind of difficult times and issues that teens have always faced.” The company also criticized the internal presentation on which the Wall Street Journal report was based.
In light of the revelations, Facebook has announced that it will suspend its Instagram Kids project and integrate parental supervision tools into the app. The company also announced that it will introduce features that encourage young users to take breaks in the app and steer them away from harmful content.
But parents of teens with eating disorders who spoke to The Guardian after Haugen’s testimony said finding out that Instagram’s parent company had researched Instagram’s impact was infuriating.
They explained how their children had been directed from videos of recipes or exercises to pro-eating disorder content and images of weight loss progress. And they said they were struggling to regulate their children’s use of social media, which has become part of their children’s daily lives.
“They’re responsible for triggering serious eating disorders in a lot of people,” Michelle said of Facebook. “And after what we’ve learned this week, it’s obvious they don’t care as long as they’re making money.”
‘There is nothing we can do about it’
Neveen Radwan, a parent living in the San Francisco Bay Area, said social media “played a huge role” in her 17-year-old daughter’s eating disorder. The teenager had been hurt not only by explicitly pro-anorexia or weight loss content, she said, but also edited photos of influencers and real friends.
“The second she opens the app, she’s bombarded with photos that are being filtered, that are being manipulated,” Radwan said. “She is trying to achieve something that is unachievable.”
In recent years, Radwan’s daughter has come a long way to recover from a serious eating disorder. At one point, her weight had dropped to 74 pounds. Her heart stopped beating and she had to be airlifted to a specialized facility.
To help her daughter avoid the triggers that she said helped send her to the hospital, Radwan tried to install a number of protections on the girl’s phone. She uses built-in iPhone tools to prevent her daughter from downloading apps without permission and monitors her online activity.
Recently, after a year and a half of treatment, Radwan’s daughter was allowed to get her phone back. But in less than 30 minutes, the teenager had bypassed restrictions to log into Instagram from the phone’s browser, Radwan said.
When her daughter opened the app, her algorithm was right where she left it, Radwan said, amid an endless supply of unhealthy food and food content.
“Once you watch a video, the algorithm takes off and they just keep coming – it’s like dominoes falling,” Radwan said. “It’s horrible, and there is nothing we can do about it.”
Experts say Facebook, however, could do something. There are a number of proven tools that would prevent the spread of harmful content and misinformation, especially when it comes to eating disorders, according to Madelyn Webb, associate research director for Media Matters for America.
She explained that algorithms recommend content similar to what users have shared, viewed or clicked on in the past – creating a feedback loop that some vulnerable teens cannot escape.
“But they will never change it because their profit model is fundamentally based on getting more clicks,” she said.
Haugen, in his testimony, suggested that Facebook return to a chronological rather than algorithmic timeline on the platform to reduce the spread of disinformation and inflammatory content.
Facebook said it works to minimize this content by limiting hashtags that promote it. But a September report by advocacy group SumOfUs found that 22 different hashtags promoting eating disorders still existed on Instagram at the time and were linked to more than 45 million disorder-related posts. of food.
The report found that 86.7% of eating disorder posts the researchers analyzed advocated unapproved appetite suppressants and 52.9% directly promoted eating disorders.
Lucy, a Washington DC-area mother who asked to be identified by a pseudonym to protect her privacy, said her daughter struggled with an eating disorder when she was 11 and had spent several years. years in remission.
But when her use of social media started to pick up during the coronavirus pandemic, the eating disorder reappeared. Lucy said her daughter had changed quickly.
“By the time we found out she was getting this negative body message, it was too late – she was already in the eating disorder,” she said. “We have seen our intelligent, lovable, caring and empathetic daughter transform into someone else.”
Lucy has also taken steps to limit her daughter’s use of social media: banning her phone from her bedroom at night, restricting time spent on social media apps, and talking to her about responsible use. But she cannot completely remove the device, as a large part of her daughter’s school and social life depends on it.
“Having this phone is like having a 24/7 billboard in front of you that says, ‘Don’t eat,’” said Lucy.
The problem, she added, was the difficulty of finding quality, affordable care for teens like her daughter. “In much of the country there are no therapists. There are waiting lists for treatment centers. And while you are waiting, this disease is getting stronger and people are getting closer to death. “
The rate of eating disorders has risen sharply in recent years, especially after the start of the pandemic. A study published by CS Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, found that the total number of hospital admissions of children with eating disorders in the first 12 months of the pandemic was higher than the average for the three previous years – 125 young people compared to 56 in previous years.
Meanwhile, access to treatment in the United States has remained extremely limited. Hospitals are running out of beds and inpatient treatment centers have long waiting lists.
While many parents see a direct line between Facebook and Instagram content and their children’s eating disorders, many find it difficult to leave the platform on their own.
Lucy, the mother in Washington, said she felt “extremely conflicted” about her use of Facebook because closed groups for parents of children with eating disorders had been “a boon.” .
She recalled a particularly difficult day when her daughter lashed out at her after urging her to eat a small amount of food. Crying and unable to sleep, Lucy posted herself to the group in the middle of the night in desperation.
“Suddenly dozens of people all over the world who knew what I was going through are telling me ‘you’re going to be okay’ – it made a huge difference,” she said. “It also helps me when I can help other people. Because there is such a stigma around this disease, and it can be such a lonely road. “