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 told CNN.
Blumenthal’s office shared with CNN a list of accounts Instagram’s algorithm had recommended. After CNN 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 told CNN. “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.”
Speaking to CNN Monday, Blumenthal said: “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.
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.”