Eating disorder posts still thrive on Instagram despite claims of a crackdown
Instagram is still plagued with disturbing eating disorder images that appear to violate the photo app’s rules — months after parent company Meta claimed it was cracking down.
Despite a rash of bad press and Congressional scrutiny around the app’s toxic effects on teens, recent searches on Instagram have revealed accounts with names like “theprettiestareskinniest” and “be_skinnyb—ch” that feature images of emaciated bodies and which appear to encourage eating disorders, an investigation by The Post reveals.
“Hunger hurts but starving works,” urged one account last month. “When I am skinny, happiness will come,” wrote another. The accounts also post terrifyingly thin bodies as “thinspiration.”
Instagram’s rules allow people struggling with deadly eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia to talk about their experiences — but explicitly ban posts “encouraging or urging people to embrace self-injury,” including by starving themselves.
“We don’t allow content that promotes or encourages eating disorders and we removed the accounts shared with us for breaking these rules,” said Meta spokesperson Stephanie Otway. “We use technology and reports from our community to find and remove this content as quickly as we can, and we’re always working to improve.”
Otway added that the company follows advice from academics and mental health organizations to inform its guidelines.
After The Post asked Meta about the accounts late last month, Instagram scrubbed them. Yet many of the accounts viewed by The Post showed that Instagram is failing to enforce its rules.
Despite Otway’s assurances, another quick Instagram search on Friday turned up even more eating disorder content, including more “thinspo” posts and accounts giving advice on how to starve oneself through extreme calorie restriction.
“Your stomach ins’t grumbling, it’s applauding,” said one of the posts, while another advised eating fewer than 2,400 calories over the span of an entire week.
After The Post asked Instagram for comment on Friday, the company once again removed the accounts.
Instagram’s losing game of Whac-a-Mole comes as its top executive, Adam Mosseri, is set to testify in the Senate over the app’s effect on teens.
While such images may be disturbing to most people, experts say they’re even worse for people struggling with eating disorders — who can fixate on aspects of the images such as cheekbones and subsequently starve themselves.
The results can be deadly: Eating disorders affect an estimated 9 percent of the US population and directly kill more than 10,000 Americans each year, making them the second-most deadly mental illness after opioid addiction, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
When The Post reported on the issue in October, a company spokesperson said Instagram was “making changes to search to make it harder for people to find accounts that share eating disorder-related content.”
The app also blocks some pro-anorexia hashtags and attempts to “nudge” people away from harmful posts when they search for eating disorder-related terms, suggesting that users call a helpline or message a friend. But users also have the option of ignoring the suggestions and viewing the images anyway.
Dr. Andrea D. Vazzana, a child and adolescent psychologist at NYU Langone who works with patients suffering from eating disorders, told The Post in October that eating disorder-related content on Instagram and other social media sites has affected 99 percent of her patients — including adult men and women.
“They’re being bombarded,” Vazzana said.
The news that eating disorder content is still present on Instagram comes weeks after a group of US states revealed that they’ve opened an investigation into Instagram over its effects on teens, including those struggling with eating disorders.
“These social media platforms are extremely dangerous and have been proven to cause both physical and mental harm in young people,” said New York Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Letitia James, who’s conducting the investigation alongside the attorneys general of California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and a slate of other states.
Meta has said the attorneys’ general investigation shows a “deep misunderstanding of the facts” and claimed that the company has “led the industry in combating bullying and supporting people struggling with suicidal thoughts, self-injury, and eating disorders.”
The company’s own researchers have known for months that eating disorder images are a problem on Instagram, according to documents that were shared by whistleblower Frances Haugen and obtained by outlets including The Post.