Instagram has apologised for a mistake in its algorithm that misled users suffering from eating disorders with its promoted diet content.
The confusion was cited because of the search function in the app automatically recommending terms such as “fasting” and “appetite suppressants”.
According to the BBC, eating disorder campaigners said that this could even trigger a relapse in vulnerable people. The social media app confirmed that the misleading terms were now removed.
A Facebook spokesperson assured the BBC that the “mistake” was rectified. Facebook owns Instagram.
The Facebook spokesperson said: “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. As part of this new feature, when you tap on the search bar, we’ll suggest topics you may want to search for. Those suggestions, as well as the search results themselves, are limited to general interests, and weight loss should not have been one of them. I could be triggered by this imagery and language and have a relapse.
“When I use the app, I’m often promoted things like calorie counting images and diet methods. People go to Instagram for support with their illness. But if you look at and research eating disorder recovery, then Instagram just throws harmful stuff at you, it can be really damaging. I know there are extremely helpful posts including what I create for others. 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.”
Instagram prohibits content that “promotes, encourages, or glorifies eating disorders”. It also restricts posts that advertise products concerning weight-loss to people over 18.
Eating disorder campaigner Hope Virgo said: “Vulnerable people are getting inundated with this content, and they aren’t even actively searching for it. Instagram has the resources and expertise to remove content that triggers people and instead promote healthy messaging.”
Hope Virgo has over 10,000 followers on Instagram.
The BBC reported that users with eating disorders had complained about being recommended “damaging” content on the app, such as calorie counting posts and diet or exercise plans to reduce weight.
However, Instagram clarified that the platform’s Explore section only recommended discussions of fitness and healthy eating.
NHS doctor and author of Food Isn’t Medicine Joshua Wolrich said: “Eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of any mental health illness, so it is really important that they are dealt with in the right way. If people are following eating disorder accounts that are helping them in their recovery, it is then really harmful to then suddenly be shown something with exactly the opposite messaging.”
Dr Wolrich advised Instagram to introduce an optional function for users to switch off any weight loss-related content, saying that this could be helpful.