TikTok needs to stop promoting unhealthy pro-anorexia content and ‘challenges’

Videos encouraging harmful eating behaviours are found too easily on the app

Content warning: Eating disorders

TikTok has become an extremely popular social media platform during the pandemic, with trends and challenges which entice users to take part. TikTok has provided people with an outlet to be creative and, whilst most of the trends and challenges are designed to be fun and harmless, there is another side of TikTok which promotes harmful messages, in particular, pro-anorexia content.

This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, defines eating disorders as: “Serious mental illnesses affecting people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds”. Anorexia nervosa (commonly referred to as anorexia) “is a serious mental illness where people are of low weight due to limiting how much they eat and drink.” Individuals with anorexia can limit how much they eat but may also do lots of exercises, make themselves sick, or misuse laxatives.  They can also “experience a deep fear of gaining weight, and will usually challenge the idea that they should”.

As someone who has struggled with disordered eating, I have tried to turn my social media into a place where I do not see transformation pictures or weight loss challenges, due to the negative thoughts and habits I know they bring up. However, this content is all over TikTok and the For You page algorithm makes it extremely difficult to avoid.

In September, TikTok announced it would be improving its ad policies on weight loss and dieting products by introducing new policies that ban adverts for fasting apps and weight loss supplements, as well as increasing restrictions on ads that promote negative body image. TikTok also said weight loss, diet, or fitness ads would only be targeted to users over 18. They added: “These types of ads do not support the positive, inclusive, and safe experience we strive for on TikTok.”

However, a few months later the Guardian found harmful pro-anorexia content was still searchable despite measures taken to block the advertising of weight-loss products. TikTok then launched an investigation and banned some search terms linked to this content.

If you search the term “anorexia” into TikTok, users are met with a message for support resources and an option to call Beat. However, users can easily get around this by searching for other terms related to anorexia. For example, “#weightloss” on TikTok has over 19 billion views. The hashtag shows weight loss transformations, exercise routines and users trying weight loss hacks that allegedly help lose weight faster.

The Guardian also found users searching for content can get around restrictions by using slight misspelling or variants of common terms. Misspelling anorexia in the TikTok search bar brings up hundreds of thousands of videos, some of which are positive recovery accounts but some are harmful eating and exercise habits. For example, “#anoreaxia” has over 360,000 views.

Dr Jon Goldin, the vice-chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, described The Guardian’s findings as “deeply disturbing”. He urged social media companies to do more and said regulators needed strong powers to sanction inaction.

A unique aspect of TikTok, compared to other social media platforms, is the For You page which shows users videos from accounts they do not follow, based on an algorithm. This means anyone can easily be exposed to harmful content without even trying to search for it. Moreover, these trends and promises promote harmful eating behaviour to children as young as thirteen, the minimum age to be able to register a TikTok account.

Whilst users can click to say they are not interested in certain videos that come up on their For You page, the use of misspelt hashtags and the vast amount of accounts that promote harmful eating behaviours makes it very difficult to completely avoid this type of content.

On Instagram, I have chosen to unfollow many influencers who promote unhealthy diets or who post transformation pictures, as I found it was triggering old habits of restricting food and disordered eating. However, because of how TikTok’s For You page works, I have much less control over what I see and I’m often exposed to weight loss videos multiple times a day.

Following announcements by the government that the UK could lift all coronavirus restrictions on 21st June, social media platforms have been rife with people talking about how they have four months to lose weight in time for summer.

This further promotes the harmful message that you need to go to extreme measures to lose “lockdown weight” in order to enjoy summer. TikTok has been inundated with even more videos of users sharing their tips to lose weight quickly, as well as users shaming themselves for putting on weight during lockdown.

One video that popped up on my For You page from an account had “weight loss” in the name.  The video showed how to make chocolate banana oats for “only 325 calories including toppings” and used “#caloriedeficit”. Whilst a calorie deficit can help people lose weight, promoting a calorie deficit is a dangerous line to tread. Some users can view the promotion of calorie deficits as further encouragement to restrict their food in a harmful way.

As well as diet and weight loss trends, TikTok is also flooded with challenges that promote a certain size as the “ideal”. The A4 waist challenge encourages people to measure their waist compared to an A4 piece of paper, whilst another video shows a product that promises to get rid of “back fat, muffin tops, bat wings, and loose skin”. Another popular trend shows users wrapping their headphones around their waist to see how many times it wraps around.

Via @danaemercer on Instagram

Fortunately, typing #a4waistchallenge into TikTok’s search bar brings up an option to access support services and a button to call Beat. However, new challenges are coming up every day, such as #waistchallenge which has over 400 million views and shows users promoting products that give you “instant results” and “say bye to your stomach”.

In response to The Guardian’s findings, a spokesperson for TikTok said: “As soon as this issue was brought to our attention, we took action banning the accounts and removing the content that violated those guidelines, as well as banning particular search terms. As content changes, we continue to work with expert partners, update our technology and review our processes to ensure we can respond to emerging and new harmful activities.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by issues discussed in this article, Beat Eating Disorders offer support services including a helpline and web-chat service. You can access these services here, or call their helpline on 0808 801 0677. 

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• It’s time for influencers to stop posting transformation posts on Instagram