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Opinion

Algorithmic Issues are Promoting Eating Disorders to Social Media Users

Recent news of the tragic passing of reality star Nikki Grahame, due to complications that arose from her long term struggle with anorexia nervosa, has lead social media users to take a deeper look at the content they’re consuming online, and how it could be consciously or subconsciously damaging.

Instagram recently faced backlash as users raised concerns about the apps algorithms promoting diet related content to those suffering with eating disorders. The search bar in the Instagram app generated suggestions based on the content that users have searched for previously and regularly engage with. However, a recent update included harmful terms such as ‘appetite suppressants’ and ‘fasting’.

Many Instagram users who are in recovery from eating disorders follow accounts that promote recovery and share positive content surrounding food and body image. Instagram has sinced apologised and resurrected the algorithmic issue, saying, “Those suggestions, as well as the search results themselves, are limited to general interests. Weight loss should not have been one of them and we’ve taken steps to prevent these terms from appearing here. We’re sorry for any confusion caused.”

Although social media cannot be entirely to blame for the worsening of eating disorders, there are ways the creators on apps such as Instagram and TikTok can be more mindful when sharing content on the topic of diet.

Algorithms make harmful content harder to avoid

On TikTok, the hashtag #weightloss has over 23 billion views. Whereas some people may find videos with this hashtag genuinely helpful, for many, hashtags like this can be extremely damaging. The thing with TikTok is that users are not always in control of the videos they are viewing, although a user may not actually choose to search for #weightloss content, the algorithm means this content may appear on their ‘for you’ page anyway. 

Raising online awareness of mental illness is important, especially considering the number of people who look to social media for help and advice. It is however imperative that apps such as TikTok and Instagram work on ensuring there are guidelines in place to guarantee that content on the topic of eating disorders is supportive rather than damaging.

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