Instagram eating disorder content is being promoted to children as young as 9 years old, according to a report from a child advocacy group …

Algorithms are recommending content that encourages extremist approaches to weight loss, says Fairplay For Kids, in a report titled Designing for Disorder: Instagram’s Pro-eating Disorder Bubble. It accuses Instagram parent company Meta of profiting from this harmful content.

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 and teen’s 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 it has significant real life consequences for children and young people.

Documents revealed in the Facebook Files suggest Meta have been aware of this problem since at least 2019 and have 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 in 75 Instagram users who follow someone in this bubble.
  • The bubble is young. This research found children as young as 9 and 10 following three or more eating disorder 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 revenue a year from this bubble and $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 $62 million in revenue from the people who follow these underage pro-eating disorder accounts.

The report calls on both state and federal legislators to act, including supporting proposals that would impose a duty on tech platforms to prioritize the interests of children.

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 operate in a manner that prioritizes children’s best interests. These bills do not regulate for content, rather they 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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Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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