- Instagram apologized for an algorithm “mistake” that promoted weight loss posts to people with eating disorders.
- “Exposure to unexpected triggers can present a significant risk of relapse,” a psychologist told Insider.
- Influencer Victoria Spence said she doesn’t believe the suggestions were a mistake.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Instagram has apologized for promoting diet content to users recovering from eating disorders.
A “mistake” in the algorithm meant that when going to the app’s “search” bar, terms about restrictive diets were suggested, including “fasting,” and “appetite suppressants.”
The error has now been fixed, a spokesperson for Instagram told the BBC’s Cristina Criddle.
Instagram’s search bar now suggests terms for users.
Instagram has apologized ‘for any confusion caused’
While social media as a whole has communities that encourage harmful disordered eating habits, like the so-called “pro-ana” community, it can provide a place of support for many of those in recovery too.
“To help people discover content they’re interested in, we recently rolled out a new way to search on Instagram beyond hashtags and usernames, where you tap on the search bar and we suggest topics you may want to search for,” a spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, said in a statement sent to Insider.
“Those suggestions, as well as the search results themselves, are limited to general interests,” they continued. ”
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.”
Instagram said it does not allow content encouraging eating disorders and removes posts as soon as the company is aware of them. Users are allowed to talk about their recovery, but hashtags like #thinspo, #proana, and #anabuddy are blocked.
Similarly, posts selling products linked to huge weight loss claims are banned, the social network said.
Psychologists say these ‘unexpected triggers can present a significant risk of relapse’
According to Dr. Bryony Bamford, Clinical Director at The London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image, the damage may have already been done.
“Many people with eating disorders, or in recovery from an eating disorder, can be immensely triggered by unhelpful messages viewed on social media,” she told Insider. “Messages about dieting or weight loss in particular can strengthen or trigger eating disorder cognitions. Recovering from an eating disorder can be an extremely vulnerable time for sufferers, and whilst they can try to limit known triggers as much as possible, exposure to unexpected triggers can present a significant risk of relapse.”
Victoria Spence is an influencer who regularly posts about overcoming her eating disorder, but says when she was in a vulnerable position in her recovery, suggestions such as these could have been “so harmful.”
“For those who have eating disorders and are turning to Instagram as a safe space to be able to connect with others who are recovering, like I did seven years ago, having this kind of messaging shoved in your face when you’re not even out searching for it is so harmful,” she told Insider. “It could honestly be the decider as to whether one continues with recovery or experiences a relapse.”
Eating disorder recovery campaigners say more needs to be done
Spence said she doesn’t believe Instagram promoting diet content was an algorithm mistake.
“Instagram is a business at the end of the day and the diet industry is a multi-billion pound industry, so by Instagram adding it to the search engine, they knew that it would equate to a lot of sales,” she said. “The problem with promoting content around ‘appetite suppressants’ and ‘weight loss plans’ on a platform with so many impressionable young people is that they are normalizing dieting and glorifying methods of weight loss that will inevitably trigger disordered eating or even worse, eating disorders.”
Spence believes Instagram needs to improve the algorithm so that more inclusive content performs better and diet posts are pushed down.
“I guess the question is, do they genuinely care about the people using their platform or do they care more about themselves as a business?” she said.
Tom Quinn, Director of External Affairs at eating disorder charity Beat, echoed Spence’s call for Instagram to do more.
“Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and it’s concerning that individuals who are struggling were being promoted this kind of harmful content,” he told Insider. “While we’re glad that Instagram have addressed this, more needs to be done across all social channels to protect people who have or are vulnerable to eating disorders. We’d encourage people to report damaging content when they see it, to step away from social media if they feel it is negatively impacting their wellbeing, and to seek out safe and positive alternatives, such as Beat’s message boards.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call NEDA’s Helpline (1-800-931-2237) on weekdays for support, resources, and information about treatment options. In crisis situations, NEDA offers 24/7 support — just text “NEDA” to 741-741.
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