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‘She opens the app and gets bombarded’: parents on Instagram, teens and eating disorders

Guardian Technology 12 Oct 2021 05:24

Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, Michelle noticed her teenage daughters were spending substantially more time on Instagram.

The girls were feeling isolated and bored during lockdown, the Arizona mom, who has asked to be identified by her first name to maintain her children’s privacy, recalled. She hoped social media could be a way for them to remain connected with their friends and community.

But as the months progressed, the girls fell into pro-diet, pro-exercise and ultimately pro-eating-disorder hashtags on the social media app. It started with “health challenge” photos and recipe videos, Michelle said, which led to more similar content in their feeds. Six months later, both had started restricting their food intake. Her eldest daughter developed “severe anorexia” and nearly had to be admitted to a health facility, Michelle said. Michelle attributes their spiral largely to the influence of social media.

“Of course Instagram does not cause eating disorders,” Michelle told the Guardian. “These are complex illnesses caused by a combination of genetics, neurobiology and other factors. But it helps to trigger them and keeps teens trapped in this completely toxic culture.”

Internal research Haugen shared with the Wall Street Journal found the platform sends some girls on a “downward spiral”. According to one March 2020 presentation about the research, “32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse”.

In light of the revelations, Facebook announced it would be pausing its Instagram Kids project and building parental supervision tools into the app. The company also said it would introduce features encouraging young users to take breaks from the app and nudging them away from harmful content.

They explained how their children had been directed from videos about recipes or exercise into pro-eating-disorder content and weight-loss progress images. And they said they struggled to regulate their children’s use of social media, which has become inextricable from their kids’ daily lives.

“They are responsible for triggering serious eating disorders in many individuals,” Michelle said about Facebook. “And after what we learned this week, it is evident they don’t care as long as they’re making money.”

Neveen Radwan, a parent living in the San Francisco Bay Area, said social media “has played a humongous role” in her 17-year-old daughter’s eating disorder. The teen had been harmed not only by content that was explicitly pro-anorexia or weight loss, she said, but also by edited photos of influencers and real-life friends.

Over the past few years, Radwan’s daughter has journeyed down a long road of recovery from a severe eating disorder. At one point, her weight was down to 74lb. Her heart stopped beating and she had to be airlifted to a specialized facility.

Recently, after a year and a half in treatment, Radwan’s daughter was allowed to have her phone back. But within 30 minutes, the teen had sneaked around the restrictions to log into Instagram from the phone’s browser, Radwan said.

“Once you look at one video, the algorithm takes off and they don’t stop coming – it’s like dominoes falling,” Radwan said. “It is horrific, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

She explained that the algorithms recommend content similar to what users have shared, viewed or clicked on in the past – creating a feedback loop that some vulnerable teens cannot escape.

Haugen, in her testimony, suggested Facebook return to a chronological rather than algorithmically driven timeline on the platform to reduce the spread of misinformation and inflammatory content.

The report found 86.7% of eating disorder posts the researchers analyzed were pushing unapproved appetite suppressants and 52.9% directly promoted eating disorders.

But when her social media use started picking up during the coronavirus pandemic, the eating disorder re-emerged. Lucy said her daughter had changed quickly.

Lucy also has taken measures to limit her daughter’s social media use – banning her phone from her room at night, restricting time on social media apps, and talking to her about responsible use. But she can’t take away the device completely, as so much of her daughter’s school and social life relies on it.

Compounding the problem, she added, was the difficulty in finding good and affordable care for teens like her daughter. “In much of the country there are no therapists. There are waiting lists for treatment facilities. And while you wait, this disease gets stronger, and people get closer to death.”

Meanwhile, access to treatment in the US has remained extremely limited. Hospitals have run out of beds and inpatient treatment centers have long waiting lists.

Lucy, the mother in Washington, said she felt “extremely conflicted” about her Facebook usage because the closed groups for parents of children dealing with eating disorders had been “a godsend”.

“Suddenly dozens of people all over the world who knew what I was going through are telling me ‘you’ll get through this’ – it made a huge difference,” she said. “It also helps me when I can help other people. Because there is such a stigma around this disease, and this can be such a lonely road.”

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