Teenager explains how Instagram 'fuelled the fire' of her anorexia
‘If someone with anorexia sees, for example, someone else who they perceive to be “more ill” than them, they will do all they can to beat them. It’s terrifying.
‘I have been there and I hated it, but there is nothing you can do because it’s the voice in your head telling you all these negative things and you believe them.
‘Instagram is full of eating disorder accounts and hashtags. For example, if you search healthy eating or something similar, somewhere on the page there will be hashtags of anorexia or other eating disorders.’
Instagram say they work hard to protect users and remove this kind of content as soon as they are told about it.
‘Nothing is more important to us than the safety of the people who use Instagram,’ an Instagram spokesperson explained.
‘We have never allowed content that promotes or encourages eating disorders and will remove it as soon as we are made aware of it – either through in-app reports or the technologies we have to help us detect it.’
But Emily’s experience of witnessing posts like this before they were removed had a really damaging effect.
‘Once you’re on there and see these “perfect” people, you’re caught in the trap and it is incredibly difficult to escape,’ she explains.
‘There are triggers all over the internet and media for people suffering with eating disorders and I find it disgusting. I understand that you can’t get rid of it all, but something needs to be done to regulate it.’
The ways that social media can intensify eating disorder symptoms are various. As well as the sense of competition and practical tips, Emily says she sees a lot of unhealthy images that masquerade as inspiration.
‘I have seen so many posts on Instagram that can be damaging to people with eating disorders’ such as hashtags on “thinspiration”, which predominantly feature malnourished girls.
‘There are many accounts which actively encourage anorexia. This is mind-blowing to me, because anorexia is one of the deadliest mental health conditions.
‘There are also accounts that people use to vent about their conditions. Now, I understand that we all need places to let our feelings out, but Instagram and other social media sites are not the place for that.
‘Especially where people are posting photos of themselves clearly on deaths door and uploading graphic content of self-harm.’
For Emily, these posts were intensely triggering. As a teenager living in 2019, it is almost impossible to live an entirely offline life, but when Emily’s mental health was at its worst, the inescapability of social media was too much.
‘When I was deep in anorexia’s grasp, seeing these photos on Instagram really fuelled the fire,’ she tells us.
‘I was already very ill and seeing these posts not only made me feel worthless and fat, but they also gave me tips on how to lose weight and get away with it.
‘I was following all the hashtags because I was so deeply engrossed in losing weight to be the thinnest, I couldn’t help it.
‘Now when I see these posts, it does still affect me, but not nearly as badly as it did before.
‘They do sometimes make me feel like I want to go back to that, but I’ve learnt to ignore them and distance myself from that content that inevitably comes up.’
So what is the answer? As it’s impossible to predict who will be affected by an eating disorder and at what point in their lives, an all-out avoidance of social media doesn’t seem feasible.
Emily agrees. She thinks there needs to be changes, but that the onus is on social media providers and not the users.
‘I don’t think it would be fair for people with eating disorders and other mental health conditions to be forced to avoid social media completely, because there are so many benefits to social media, from communicating with friends to watching dog videos,’ says Emily.
‘But I don’t think that at the moment there is a “safe” way to use Instagram and other social media platforms for people with eating disorders. The damaging content is – from what I have seen -more or less plastered all over it.
‘Personally, I think that people should be mindful of the dangers and do their best to avoid any possible triggers such as “thin” hashtags and anorexia pages or accounts.
‘If they do find accounts like this, they should report and block them immediately. However, if a person feels unable to do this and is vulnerable, they should stay off social media for a while until they feel ready and well enough to return – like I did.
‘Most importantly, anyone who is struggling should get help to beat this merciless illness.’
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