A report published this month by marketing watchdog Fairplay finds that Instagram’s algorithm promotes an extensive network of pro-eating disorder content.
According to the report, “Designing for Disorder,” there are over 90,000 unique accounts promoting such content, all of which collectively reaches some 20 million users around the world. More troublingly, the report notes that one in three exposed accounts belong to someone under the age of 18. Meta, Instagram’s parent company, derives an estimated $227.9 million in revenue from followers within this toxic ecosystem.
“[Instagram] can build it differently,” says Rys Farthing, the lead researcher on the report. “No one is saying that young people who are on a journey of recovery shouldn’t be on instagram. But does Instagram’s algorithm need to be promoting this content?”
When asked about the Fairplay report, Meta spokesperson Liza Crenshaw said in a statement: “We’re not able to fully address this report because the authors declined to share it with us ahead of time, but reports like this often misunderstand that completely removing content related to peoples’ journeys with or recovery from eating disorders can exacerbate difficult moments and cut people off from community. Experts and safety organizations have told us it’s important to strike a balance and allow people to share their personal stories while removing any content that encourages or promotes eating disorders.”
The pro-eating disorder bubble operates much like anything else on Instagram: amalgamating demographic data and search histories, Instagram’s algorithm will recommend accounts to follow and posts to view. Show the slightest bit of interest in pro-eating disorder content—not an unlikely scenario, given that about 9% of people in the U.S. (28.8 million Americans) will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders—and the algorithm locks the user in, forever pushing harmful messaging that features excessive dieting and other pro-eating disorder content.
There are a number of bills across the United States that would force Instagram and other social media companies to rein in pro-eating disorder content. AB 2273, the California Age Appropriate Design Code, would limit how much data tech companies can collect from children. (The bill is currently being considered by the state’s Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection.) On the federal level, the Kids Online Safety Act, which was introduced in the Senate in February, would enact similar changes. Farthing says that the golden era of tech’s self-regulation is long overdue. “How the fuck did we get to 2022 and we are literally now having the debate about whether we should pass legislation or not that says fundamentally, its not okay to make a trillion-dollar profit by making a product that harms kids?” Farthing asks.
Fairplay’s study is the latest to investigate the direct physical, mental, and social harms that unregulated tech can have on adolescents. Instagram addiction, according to a study published last year, can lead to decreased academic performance and increased social anxiety. In 2017, researchers at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium found that passive consumption of social network services is positively correlated with increased depressive moods among teens.
“Fundamentally, there has been zero thought about designing [these] systems, designing services in ways that work for young people,” Farthing says.