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Instagram promoted pages glorifying eating disorders to teen accounts

"This experience shows very graphically how [Facebook's] claims to protect children or take down accounts that may be dangerous to them are absolute hogwash."

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"I have to be thin," "Eternally starved," "I want to be perfect." These are the names of accounts Instagram's algorithms promoted to an account registered as belonging to a 13-year-old girl who expressed interest in weight loss and dieting.

Proof that Instagram is not only failing to crack down on accounts promoting extreme dieting and eating disorders, but actively promotes those accounts, comes as Instagram and its parent company Facebook are facing intense scrutiny over the impact they have on young people's mental health.

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Instagram acknowledged to CNN this weekend that those accounts broke its rules against the promotion of extreme dieting, and they shouldn't have been allowed on the platform.

The extreme dieting accounts were promoted to an Instagram account set up by Sen. Richard Blumenthal's staff. The Connecticut senator's team registered an account as a 13-year-old girl and proceeded to follow some dieting and pro-eating disorder accounts (the latter of which are supposed to be banned by Instagram). Soon, Instagram's algorithm began almost exclusively recommending the young teenage account should follow more and more extreme dieting accounts, the senator told CNN.

Blumenthal's office shared with CNN a list of accounts Instagram's algorithm had recommended. After CNN sent a sample from this list of five accounts to Instagram for comment, the company removed them, saying all of them broke its policies against encouraging eating disorders.

"We do not allow content that promotes or encourages eating disorders and we removed the accounts shared with us for breaking these rules," a spokesperson for Facebook, Instagram's parent company told CNN. "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. We'll continue to follow expert advice from academics and mental health organizations, like the National Eating Disorder Association, to strike the difficult balance between allowing people to share their mental health experiences while protecting them from potentially harmful content."

Speaking to CNN Monday, Blumenthal said: "This experience shows very graphically how [Facebook's] claims to protect children or take down accounts that may be dangerous to them are absolute hogwash."

Blumenthal's experiment is not an anomaly and may come as little surprise to regular users of Instagram who are familiar with how the platform's algorithm recommends accounts that it has determined a user might be interested in.

It follows reporting by the Wall Street Journal based on internal Facebook documents that show the company is aware of the "toxic" effects its platforms, especially Instagram, can have on young people. Much of that reporting, and Facebook's ensuing commentary, has centered on the negative impacts of social comparison to celebrities and popular figures on the app — a problem Facebook says is society-wide, and not exclusive to its apps. According to the WSJ reporting, however, Facebook researchers acknowledged that "social comparison is worse on Instagram" than some other platforms because it focuses on the entire body and a person's lifestyle.

Blumenthal's experiment goes a layer deeper, showing how quickly Instagram's algorithm promotes harmful content to young users.

CNN set up an account last week using the same methodology as the senator's office, also following some extreme dieting and pro-eating disorder accounts. On Sunday, Instagram promoted accounts with names like "Sweet Skinny," "Prettily Skinny," and "Wanna Be Skinny" to the experiment CNN account that was also registered as belonging to a 13-year-old girl. CNN has reached out to Instagram to ask if these accounts also violate its policies.

The danger of eating disorder content on Instagram

Viewing content from these extreme dieting accounts — which included, for example, images of extremely thin bodies and information about a user's "current weight" versus their "goal weight" — can act as validation for users already predisposed to unhealthy behaviors, experts say.

"It's called confirmation bias, where people tend to seek information that confirms what they already believe is true," said Pamela Keel, a psychology professor at Florida State University, who has studied how using Instagram can contribute to eating disorders. While confirmation bias is often discussed in the context of other issues on social media, such as vaccine misinformation, it could also affect "somebody who's already thinking that they need to be thin, or thinner, and is looking for other people to agree with them that that's an important thing," she said.

"We're constantly looking for validation that we're right, even if that validation is really, really harmful to our personal health," Keel added, raising the stakes for Instagram to avoid promoting such content.