Instagram and Facebook recently announced they will block users under age 18 from seeing posts that promote certain weight loss products or cosmetic procedures. It’s an attempt to shield teens from the dangerous messages that being beautiful means being slim, and that you can get that way by sucking on a diet-suppressing lollipop or sipping detox tea. The ban is a good move. But the “thin ideal” is such a pervasive concept in our society that I fear this change will do little to protect teenagers from the diet culture messaging that bombards them daily.
Too often, weight control products are endorsed by teen icons such as the Kardashians or Cardi B in a way that suggests these celebrities achieved their good looks by consuming certain items – rather than through genetic inheritances, aesthetic enhancements, personal trainers and Photoshopping. Adults can fall for such assertions, too, and for that reason, Facebook and Instagram will also remove any content making “miraculous claims” about diet or weight loss products that is linked to a commercial offer.
Even with these filters, however, questionable content will get through. I used my teenage daughter’s phone on a recent morning to search for “weight loss” on Instagram. While there were definitely some blocked posts (a grayscale square pops up saying the ad is blocked and asks the user to confirm they are over 18), there are plenty of remaining pictures about how to “lose fat fast” or “make protein shakes” that could easily lead any teenager to follow harmful dieting advice.
Ysabel Gerrard, a lecturer in digital media at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom who helped Instagram develop the new policy, said last week’s announcement marks only the first step of the policy, which will continue to be adapted and improved. (In 2012, Instagram banned posts with tags such as #thinspiration that encourage extreme weight loss.)
“This won’t be the last you hear of Instagram’s efforts to minimize dangerous diet- and cosmetic surgery-related content, and I will keep working with the other experts to push this in the best possible direction,” she said. “One of the things that remains unclear to the public, and which I suspect will be clarified, is the definition of ‘miraculous claims.’ “
Gerrard also said that Instagram will have a set of guidelines to help human content moderators figure out which posts break the rules and which ones don’t. And when users see content they are unhappy with, there will be an easy way to report it to Instagram.
Gerrard explained that Instagram’s new policy specifically aims to protect people whose bodies are still developing. In the United States, that would be the 72 percent of teens who are among Instagram’s 1 billion users. Studies show that young women who follow appearance-focused accounts on Instagram have a greater likelihood of internalizing a thin ideal and a more negative body image, and a greater likelihood of suffering from disordered eating.
What’s also concerning is that social media use may contribute to an echo chamber effect, where teens think their worldviews are more common than they actually are because they only see posts from people with a similar mind-set.
“It’s awful to see celebrities giving advice about harmful weight loss supplements to vulnerable people on the Internet, especially to young people who need to be built up rather than torn down by the myth that being skinny is the key to happiness,” said Rebecca Bitzer, a dietitian and certified eating disorder specialist in Maryland. “That is simply not true, and we have to be responsible with our messages to move away from this diet mentality.”
Bitzer said many clients have walked into her office and cried in a session because a post they saw on social media had sabotaged their work toward recovery from disordered eating. “Not only are the images confusing and contradictory, they are actually harmful and destructive to the people viewing them,” she said.
Activist and actress Jameela Jamil, who started a petition earlier this year to encourage Instagram to ban harmful weight loss posts, is asking for them to be stopped altogether. After all, teens are not the only people affected by these messages. A 2016 study of US adults ages 19 to 32 found that high use of social media is linked to an increased risk of body image concerns and eating disorders among users, regardless of gender, race and income level.
Of course, ads for commercial diet products are not the only posts that lead people to believe in an unrealistic standard of beauty. There’s a whole world of negative diet culture out there in every medium, so this is a baby step. “Instagram and the larger team behind this policy know their new policy isn’t a fix,” says Gerrard. “Technologies generally can’t fix social problems.”
It’s up to every individual, therefore, to recognize that diet culture is problematic, and to realize that we don’t have to wait for Instagram to do something about it. Social media platforms, after all, simply show us more of what they think we want to see. When we search for posts about diet and weight control, Instagram will continue to fill our feeds with ads in these categories. So users (and parents or guardians of users) must manage content along with social media companies. (If that means checking your teenager’s Instagram account, it may be time to sign up.)
If social media has become harmful to your self-esteem (or is affecting your teenager), it’s vital to reduce the amount of time you spend scrolling, or to begin to curate a different online experience by following accounts that make you feel good about yourself and unfollowing influencers who promote unrealistic standards of beauty.
The real change we need is a societal shift to end diet culture. And, while social media platforms can help, that’s beyond any policy that Instagram can implement.
© The Washington Post 2019