Technology

Instagram curates anorexia images to teen girls who have eating disorders: docs

Facebook’s own researchers have found that Instagram barrages teen girls who have anorexia and other eating disorders with photos and videos of other afflicted girls — a practice that experts say has been shown to worsen the disorders, The Post has learned.

According to an April presentation by Facebook executives, a team of Instagram researchers earlier this year created a test user that followed dieting- and thinness-obsessed Instagram accounts, as well as hashtags like #skinny and #thin. 

Instagram’s algorithm then recommended more eating disorder-related content — including images of distressingly thin female bodies and accounts with names like “_skinandbones__,” “applecoreanorexic” and “skinny._.binge,” according to a disturbing internal study obtained by The Post 

While images of emaciated bodies can appear revolting to most people, teens who already have body image issues share them as “thinspo” — images that “inspire” users to become impossibly thin, according to health experts.

“Even people with anorexia nervosa can identify that a person is too thin — but there still can be some element of that image that’s appealing to them,” said Dr. Andrea D. Vazzana, a child and adolescent psychologist at NYU Langone who works with eating disorder patients. 

After the test account followed accounts promoting eating disorders, Instagram recommended more of the same.

For example, a teen girl with anorexia might fixate on Instagram images of a model’s cheekbones and subsequently starve themselves, Vazzana said. She adds that eating disorder-related content and Instagram and other social media sites like TikTok have affected 99 percent of her patients — including adult men and women. 

“They’re being bombarded,” Vazzana said.

The Post’s reveal of the previously unreported Instagram study comes after a series of bombshell reports in the Wall Street Journal showed that Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three teen girls, according to other internal company research. 

Following the Journal’s reporting, Facebook delayed plans for a kids’ version of Instagram and the company’s safety chief Antigone Davis was called to testify in front of a key Senate subcommittee.

During the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) revealed that his office had created a test Instagram account for a 13-year-old girl and that the account had been served content promoting eating disorders within one day. 

“Instagram’s recommendations will still latch on to a person’s insecurities — a young woman’s vulnerabilities — about their bodies and drag them into dark places that glorify eating disorders and self-harm,” Blumenthal said. “That’s what Instagram does.” 

The Instagram study, which shows that Facebook was aware of the issue months before Blumenthal’s experiment, was revealed in disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. A consortium of news organizations, including The Post, has obtained the redacted versions received by Congress.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company’s official content rules, which it has struggled to enforce, ban content that promotes, encourages or glorifies eating disorders but allows users to share stories about recovering from such conditions. 


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