Eating disorder content promoted to kids by Instagram, says child advocacy report

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According to research from a child advocacy organization, Instagram eating disorder material is being marketed to youngsters as young as 9 years old…

According to Fairplay For Kids’ research, “Designing for Disorder: Instagram’s Pro-eating Disorder Bubble,” algorithms are promoting material that pushes extreme measures for weight reduction.

Instagram’s parent company, Meta, is accused of benefiting from this malicious material.

Algorithms are profiling children and teens to serve them images, memes, and videos encouraging restrictive diets and extreme weight loss. And in turn, Instagram is promoting and recommending children’s and teens’ eating disorder content to half a million people globally. The promotion and reach of this content is clearly not in the best interests of children and teenagers.

Meta’s pro-eating disorder bubble is not an isolated incident nor an awful accident. Rather, it is an example of how, without appropriate checks and balances, Meta systematically puts profit ahead of young people’s safety and wellbeing. Meta’s decisions around hosting and recommending eating disorder content may deliver small but steady profits to shareholders, but they have significant real-life consequences for children and young people.

Documents revealed in the Facebook Files suggest Meta has been aware of this problem since at least 2019 and has failed to act.

The report says that the scale of the problem is huge.

  • The pro-eating disorder bubble on Instagram includes 90,000 unique accounts and reaches 20 million unique followers on the platform. This could be one of 75 Instagram users who follow someone in this bubble.
  • The bubble is young. This research found children as young as 9 and 10 suffer from three or more eating disorders accounts, with a median age of 18. One-third of Instagram’s pro-eating disorder bubble is underage, and they have over half a million followers.
  • Meta derives an estimated $2 million in revenue a year from this bubble and another $227.9 million from all those who follow this bubble. This revenue includes that derived from underage users—Meta directly makes $0.5 million a year from the underage pro-eating disorder bubble and another $62 million in revenue from the people who follow these underage pro-eating disorder accounts.

The report asks both state and federal legislators to do something, including supporting proposals that would make tech companies put the needs of children first.

Proposals in front of the California Assembly (the California Age Appropriate Design Code Act, AB 2773), and Congress (the Kids Online Safety Act, and Protecting the Information of our Vulnerable Children and Youth Act) could help ensure that platforms are designed and operated in a manner that prioritizes children’s best interests. These bills do not regulate content, but rather address the design and systems of digital services. These are long overdue and are demonstrably necessary to incentivize action against algorithms that promote eating disorder content. This sort of regulation can introduce requirements to assess and mitigate risks posed by algorithms and prohibit the use of children’s data to train algorithms that harm.



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