Eating Disorders Still A Major Issue For Instagram

By Keri Blakinger 05/03/16

Pro-eating disorder Instagrammers often turn to misspellings of popular old tags to spread unhealthy images to others. 

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Eating Disorders Still A Major Issue For Instagram
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In 2012, Instagram tried to put a stop to pro-eating disorder posters—users seeking to inspire each other to be thin using hashtags like #thinspiration and #ana. But the photo sharing app's efforts to stamp out pro-ED messages have been "mostly ineffective," according to a study published in March. 

Popular blog site Tumblr had begun moderating or removing pro-ED blogs, and Instagram tried to follow suit by making key pro-ED hashtags unsearchable, adding content advisories and disabling accounts. The change came just days after Facebook acquired the app for $1 billion. But instead of making things better, Instagram's new anti-ED policy did the opposite, according to BuzzFeed.

BuzzFeed spoke to Hannah Coombs, a 17-year-old now recovering from anorexia, who said the changes didn’t help. “You could still find things just as easily, unfortunately,” she said. Instead of using the old hashtags like #thinspiration, Instagram users turned to misspellings of the old tags, and so “thinspiration” became “thynsperation” and “ana” became “anna.” They didn’t just morph, though—they multiplied. The March study, conducted by a team from Georgia Institute of Technology, provided data showing that the damaging hashtags have proliferated since the policy change. 

To quantify that, the researchers analyzed 2.5 million posts between 2011 and 2014, and 17 pro-ED hashtags that were banned or moderated. They found that each hashtag generated an average of 40 spin-off hashtags. Since using #anorexia was prohibited, this spawned 99 variations of the hashtag (#anorexique, #anorexica), and 107 variations of #thighgap (#thygap, #thigh_gap)—and the variations garnered even more comments and "likes" than the originals, the study found. 

What puzzled the researchers was that the spin-offs seemed to be more triggering and focused on self-harm than the original hashtags, although researchers aren't sure why. A University of Oregon sociologist told BuzzFeed it’s “a whack-a-mole game.” Although online pro-ED communities have existed for almost as long as the Internet has, the convenience of hashtags as a social media search tool has made the damaging posts much easier to find. 

That said, despite the unintended consequences, social media giants seem intent on doing their part to squash the spread of unhealthy communities online. “All of these companies I’ve dealt with, who are trying to address this, have a genuine interest in helping people. It’s just a really, really complicated problem,” said Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association. 

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.