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Instagram has issued an apology to users for inadvertently promoting weight-loss content to potentially impressionable users, particularly those with eating disorders.
Advocates called out the app for carelessly suggesting terms such as “appetite suppressants” and “fasting” through the Instagram Explore search engine, which may put vulnerable users at risk of developing or relapsing eating disorders.
The social platform claims that these harmful phrases have been removed since Monday, telling the BBC it was a “mistake” in their algorithm.
“We recently rolled out a new search functionality on Instagram beyond hashtags and usernames, to help you more easily discover and explore content you’re most interested in,” a spokesperson said.
“As part of this new feature, when you tap on the search bar, we’ll suggest topics you may want to search for,” they explained. “Those suggestions, as well as the search results themselves, are limited to general interests, and weight loss should not have been one of them.”
Instagram has reportedly banned content that “promotes, encourages or glorifies eating disorders,” the app has said, while restricting the reach of dietary product advertisements, particularly to minors.
Lauren Black, a British influencer in recovery from anorexia, told the BBC that she “could be triggered by this imagery and language and have a relapse.”
Black believes the app may be conflating her search interest in “eating disorder recovery” with weight-loss content in general.
“I know there are extremely helpful posts including what I create for others,” said Black. “But the triggering imagery should be stopped because I don’t want to be bombarded on how to lose weight.
“I try to click off it and put my phone away as soon as I see it because it upsets me,” she added.
Despite Instagram’s corrections, Black and other users complain that the app has repeatedly recommended posts that spotlight potentially “damaging” trends, including calorie-counting and exercise plans designed to promote weight loss.
Even seemingly innocuous search terms such as “fitness journey” and “nutrition tip” can be a slippery slope when it leads to countless profiles of exercise-obsessed fit models.
In February, Instagram announced they were taking new measures to support those who attempt to engage with posts that promote eating disorders by censoring posts related to self-harm and “introducing new resources specific to body-image issues,” which includes contacts for various eating disorder hotlines.
“As experts tell us that intervening early can be helpful, if someone tries searching for terms related to disordered eating, we’ll share these resources first before showing the search results,” the social-media company stated in a blog post on their website.
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