Facebook’s own researchers have found that Instagram barrages teen girls who have anorexia and other eating disorders with photos and videos of other afflicted girls — a practice that experts say has been shown to worsen the disorders, The Post has learned.
According to an April presentation by Facebook executives, a team of Instagram researchers earlier this year created a test user that followed dieting- and thinness-obsessed Instagram accounts, as well as hashtags like #skinny and #thin.
Instagram’s algorithm then recommended more eating disorder-related content — including images of distressingly thin female bodies and accounts with names like "_skinandbones__," "applecoreanorexic" and "skinny._.binge," according to a disturbing internal study obtained by The Post.
While images of emaciated bodies can appear revolting to most people, teens who already have body image issues share them as "thinspo" — images that "inspire" users to become impossibly thin, according to health experts.
"Even people with anorexia nervosa can identify that a person is too thin — but there still can be some element of that image that’s appealing to them," said Dr. Andrea D. Vazzana, a child and adolescent psychologist at NYU Langone who works with eating disorder patients.
For example, a teen girl with anorexia might fixate on Instagram images of a model’s cheekbones and subsequently starve themselves, Vazzana said. She adds that eating disorder-related content and Instagram and other social media sites like TikTok have affected 99 percent of her patients — including adult men and women.
"They’re being bombarded," Vazzana said.
The Post’s reveal of the previously unreported Instagram study comes after a series of bombshell reports in the Wall Street Journal showed that Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three teen girls, according to other internal company research.
Following the Journal’s reporting, Facebook delayed plans for a kids’ version of Instagram and the company’s safety chief Antigone Davis was called to testify in front of a key Senate subcommittee.
During the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) revealed that his office had created a test Instagram account for a 13-year-old girl and that the account had been served content promoting eating disorders within one day.
"Instagram’s recommendations will still latch on to a person’s insecurities — a young woman’s vulnerabilities — about their bodies and drag them into dark places that glorify eating disorders and self-harm," Blumenthal said. "That’s what Instagram does."
The Instagram study, which shows that Facebook was aware of the issue months before Blumenthal’s experiment, was revealed in disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. A consortium of news organizations, including The Post, has obtained the redacted versions received by Congress.
A Facebook spokesperson told The Post, "We want Instagram to be a supportive place for people struggling with eating disorders and body image issues, especially young women and girls, and we’ve worked with experts like the National Eating Disorders Association for years to build policies and features to help where we can.
"The purpose of this analysis was to look for areas where we can improve, and we responded to the gaps we found by making changes to Search to make it harder for people to find accounts that share eating disorder-related content. We’re also exploring ways to prevent people from rabbit-holing on one type of content by nudging them to diversify what they’re looking at if they’ve been scrolling on the same topic for a while."