A new report published last week revealed just how much content promoting eating disorders to women and teens lives on Instagram. And unsurprisingly: There’s way too much.
The data, from the advocacy group SumOfUs, lands on the heels of an explosive Wall Street Journal series alleging that the company is fully aware of its platform’s negative impact — including the toxic impact it has on teenage girls.
And while eating disorder experts have long warned that Instagram can help fuel eating disorders, taken together the new reports paint a picture of a problem that is spiraling out of control.
“Eating disorder experts are exceedingly concerned about the detrimental impacts of social media on not only those with eating disorders, but also those with disordered eating, mood disorders, and poor body image,” psychologist Samantha DeCaro, director of clinical outreach and education for The Renfrew Center, a residential treatment center for eating disorders, told HuffPost.
“Although these platforms can be used as a tool to develop and maintain relationships, they can also be used to self-objectify, compare themselves to peers, motivate harmful behaviors, and seek external validation through the number of likes, views and comments,” she said.
How Instagram Can Hurt Teen Girls And Young Women
The new SumOfUs report looked at a sample of 720 Instagram posts, 240 of which were related to eating disorders. The report also looked at posts about plastic surgery and skin whitening.
Researchers found that 87.6% of the eating disorder-related posts pushed unapproved appetite suppressants, while nearly 53% directly promoted eating disorders.
They included a few examples of harmful posts, including those that directly promote extreme diets (like a daily meal plan that comes in at well under 200 calories a day), as well as pictures of teenage girls with captions full of negative self-talk.
But there are millions of posts being shared with eating disorder-related hashtags that Facebook (which owns Instagram) does little to combat, the report argues.
“While Instagram takes action to remove the most obvious hashtags that promote eating disorders, Instagram users can easily get around this by using creative hashtags ... to evade attempts to suppress their content,” the researchers write.
And mental health experts warn that even content that does not seem obviously toxic can be profoundly damaging to teens. For example, when Instagram influencers post videos about what they eat in a day, many teenagers closely follow their advice even though the poster is not a nutrition expert or medical professional — and they learn to dismiss their own preferences and hunger cues, DeCaro said.
“There is also research that suggests that the mere act of editing and posting a photo can potentially increase anxiety, weight concerns, and urges to restrict,” she added.
What Teens And Parents Can Do About It
It’s unclear to what extent Facebook or Congress will make changes to better protect tweens and teens from the impact of social media on mental health and body image. Facebook has previously pushed back on claims that its platforms are harmful to teens, saying that research linking declining teen mental health and social media is not conclusive.
Still, company executives have been gathering for emergency meetings in recent weeks, The New York Times reported. The company recently shelved plans for Instagram Kids, a service aimed at tweens, at least for the time being.
But for now, much of the burden of buffering the toxic impact of Instagram on teens’ mental health falls squarely on parents and on children themselves.
“When I read the report I continued to be shocked and distressed ... but it’s not new,” said Jillian Lampert, chief strategy officer of The Emily Program, an eating disorder treatment program. “We know that social media, and particularly images, have a really significant impact upon people viewing them. Particularly young, developing brains.”
Parents can start by simply knowing what accounts kids have — including any “finstas” — and follow them, Lampert urged. Talk to teens directly about what they’re seeing, about what they’re posting, and how they feel about all of it. (She noted that she is a mom of teenagers herself, and was unaware of her kids’ had other Instagram accounts for a year.)
Also, putting clear limits around when they can use their devices can help.
“Do they have their phone in their room all night long? Is the WiFi on all of the time?” Lampert said. “We know it’s enticing! We know kids won’t just put down their phone and say, ‘Hm, I probably shouldn’t do this anymore. It’s not good for my developing brain.’”
Because ultimately, while Instagram can be a toxic environment for tweens, teens and young adults, social media is an important part of connection and socializing for them — and can be a powerful way for them to connect with therapists and reputable treatment facilities, for example, DeCaro said.
“Social media can also be a way for younger folks to seek out and follow creators who are diverse in body types, abilities, genders, races, ethnicities and sexualities to help challenge the toxic narratives pushed on us by the beauty and diet industries,” she added.
The challenge is helping teens tap into those potential upsides while avoiding content that promotes destructive behavior — and that cannot be done by parents alone. Advocacy groups like Fairplay are working to make the internet safer for young people, and very publicly pushed back against the Instagram for kids along with child development experts.
The company itself also needs to make moves. Earlier this year, Instagram tested hiding “likes” as a way to help promote better mental health when using the app. Some have suggested other changes to the app ― like calling out photos that have been cosmetically altered ― could also make a difference.
It’s on everyone to take this problem seriously. Reminding tweens and teens that social media is not a reflection of reality, and setting limits can also help.