Anorexia and bulimia on Instagram: Algorithms promote eating disorders

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In order to investigate the influence of Instagram on eating disorders, the NDR and WDR, the SZ and the Swiss editorial network Tamedia set up a number of test accounts as profiles of minors. It turned out that “problematic content” can not only be called up with the accounts, but is also recommended to them. Self-appointed coaches are also on the platform, offering the fictitious girls help with losing weight, encouraging them to do self-destructive actions and, in return, asking for pictures – for example in underwear.

The accounts created during the research were similar to the profiles of other anorexics on Instagram. As a result, the test accounts probably immediately received friend suggestions from accounts whose owners obviously have eating disorders. Especially the most extreme accounts with particularly skinny bodies quickly gained many followers and thus a larger reach.

The SZ, NDR, WDR and Tamedia had reported several accounts of dubious coaches, after which there was initially no reaction. Afterwards, a press spokeswoman told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the behavior of the coaches violated the guidelines and that the problem was taken very seriously According to the SZ, most of the accounts have now been deleted.

According to the research, the coaches also demand pictures from “real” underage Instagram users that not only show their emaciated body – pictures that document their self-destructive behavior such as “cracking” and “vomiting” are also desired.

At the end of 2021, Frances Haugen reported again on Meta’s algorithms and their effects on children’s psyches in a hearing in the US Congress. She emphasized that the group was able to play out neutral content. Instead, Facebook aims for reach and therefore tends to distribute extreme content. Haugen is therefore calling for the Instagram and Facebook platforms to be regulated.


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