A study conducted by the non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate demonstrates how easily vulnerable teenagers can quickly have their body image disturbances reinforced by the popular social media app TikTok. Researchers created several fake accounts of differing vulnerabilities by modifying TikTok use and found an overwhelming amount of content that fuels eating disorders and those with suicidal ideation. “Within 2.6 minutes, TikTok recommended suicide content. Within 8 minutes, TikTok served content related to eating disorders. Every 39 seconds, TikTok recommended videos about body image and mental health to teens.”
HOW SOCIAL MEDIA ALGORITHMS PROMOTE EATING DISORDERS
Social media is a usually free service that provides users easy access to entertainment, as well as the ability to gather inspiration and connect with people of similar interests. The flip side of this connection is that it is also a platform by which producers of content are easily able to put forward a highlight reel of their life portrayed as their average day, reinforcing comparisons to unrealistic depictions of peers and strangers. Consequently, these carefully curated and edited versions of others’ faces, bodies, and lives leave consumers feeling worse about their own lives, the more content they consume.
The reason these platforms don’t charge users is that they make money through advertisements. As a business, they are trying to optimise profit, and so design an algorithm that will keep you engaged in the app for as long as possible, to show you as many adverts as they can without you wanting to stop scrolling. As a result, the machine is heavily focused on showing you more of what you have shown interest in, calculated by your likes, follows, watch-time, and interests. This is relatively harmless when it’s videos of crocheting, baking videos, or the latest dance craze, but incredibly problematic when you have young people with mental health vulnerabilities seeking content they relate to.
WHY TIKTOK CONTENT MAKES RECOVERY MORE DIFFICULT
It’s important to be clear that TikTok isn’t the only platform with this problem. This is a real concern with all social media platforms. However, the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that TikTok hosts an eating disorder community with over 13.2 billion views. This is not just something that only a select few eating disorder sufferers are exposed to. With the average TikTok viewer spending 80 minutes a day on the application, for those exposed to eating disorder content, it’s like spending 80 minutes every day in a hall of distorted mirrors with your best friend whispering how ugly, pathetic, undisciplined, and worthless you are. Whilst there are numerous physical, psychological, and social consequences to eating disorders, choosing to recover is a hard choice to make every day as it can feel like letting go of something that is so important to your safety, self-worth, or identity. Battling this ambivalence is hard enough without reinforcing the eating disorder’s narrative by developing distorted perceptions of the world through social media’s algorithm depictions. And remember, TikTok’s algorithm will only continue to profit by providing its users increasingly intense and distressing content without any checks, resources, or support.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO BETTER SUPPORT EATING DISORDER RECOVERY
TikTok does have some official rules in place. Technically those under 13 are not allowed to use the platform, and the official rules do prohibit videos that encourage eating disorders or suicide. However, young people can lie about their age, and users of any age are still vulnerable to eating disorder content which is easily accessible to those seeking the material. Those who are part of the eating disorder community on TikTok use coded language about eating disorders in an effort to evade TikTok’s content moderation.
If you are concerned about your own social media use, there are many ways to improve your experience and limit the impact of eating disorder content on your recovery:
- Turn off notifications
- Find alternative apps for procrastination or entertainment
- Set time limits for TikTok use
- Use TikTok at safer times (when in the company of others)
- Actively select ‘Not interested’ on problematic content
- Unfollow accounts that promote eating disorder or similar themes
- Follow or like helpful accounts
- Remove the app from your phone
For parents concerned about their children’s use the Center for Countering Digital Hate has released a parent’s guide. For more information on the report you can visit https://counterhate.com/research/deadly-by-design/. If you would like to talk to someone about help in your recovery, you can reach out to one of your friendly dietitians by accessing the contact page.