Does Moderating Pro-Eating Disorder Groups On Social Media Make It Worse?

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Social media is being increasingly scrutinized for the role it potentially plays in facilitating eating disorders. Sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr have developed devoted communities of young girls who share dangerous images intended to provide inspiration to continue abstaining from food or purging – often called “thinspiration.”

Source: Luaxan/DeviantArt

Source: Luaxan/DeviantArt

Overall, most social media networks have left these communities untouched and allowed them to continue to grow naturally. However, in 2012 Instagram made a move that was hailed as being a proactive effort to reduce the number of pro-ED groups. The social platform started moderating specific terms used by pro-anorexia groups, which made it one of the most tightly moderated platforms around.

Unfortunately, research from Georgia Tech shows banning these words did little to deter the communities using them. In fact, the move may have actually done more harm than good.

When Instagram started moderating pro-eating disorder terms, such as “thigh gap”, “thinspiration” and “imugly”, they did so in several ways. All posts containing these words were removed from search results, and when posts were tagged with those terms, users had to first view a screen advising them the post featured questionable content. They also occasionally included links to helpful sites or hotlines for eating disorder support.

According to a group of Georgia Tech researchers who presented their findings at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing in San Francisco, banning these terms did little to stop these communities from sharing and viewing pro-eating disorder content.

The group used a program to evaluate 2.5 million posts made on Instagram between 2011 and 2014, searching for the banned terms and found the ban only caused new variations in spelling to spring up, such as “thyghgapp” and “thinspoooooo.” In total, Instagram banned 17 terms. Before long at least 250 new terms specifically used by pro-eating disorder communities appeared and even started spreading to other platforms like Tumblr.

“People pretty much stopped using the banned terms, but they gamed the system to stay in touch,” said Stevie Chancellor, a doctoral student who led the study.

Beyond this, the attempt to moderate pro-eating disorder content appears to have made it even easier to see and interact with.

“Likes and comments on these new tags were 15 to 30 percent higher compared to the originals,” said Munmun De Choudury, assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing. “Before the ban, a person searching for hashtags would only find their intended word. Now a search produces dozens of similar, non-censored pro-ED terms. That means more content to view and engage with.”

So how can social media sites attempt to intervene and reduce the amount of people sharing and viewing pro-eating disorder content on their websites? The researchers have a few ideas.

“Allow them to be searchable. But once they’re selected, the landing page could include links for help organizations,” said Chancellor. “Maybe the search algorithms could be tweaked. Instead of similar terms being displayed, Instagram could introduce recovery-related terms in the search box.”

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