Social media app TikTok has come under fire from users claiming that its video recommendations push content glamorizing eating disorders. In a recent report from Buzzfeed News, several TikTok users said that they had unwittingly encountered videos that endorse dangerous diet practices. Some of these include eating ice chips instead of food, fasting for days, and sleeping all day to avoid eating.
Promoting Toxic Standards
“The nature of any [eating disorder] is just very competitive,” a former TikTok user named Lily told Buzzfeed. “You always want to be the skinniest, you always want to lose even more weight, you’re always comparing yourself.” Lily said TikTok videos ostensibly about health and weight loss worsened her own eating disorder.
When Buzzfeed searched TikTok terms related to weight loss or calories, they reported finding accounts “promoting dangerous diets and weight loss goals to their followers,” the outlet said. One such account was purportedly run by a 13-year-old user. Comments on the account included users asking for weight loss tips as well as those decrying it as dangerous.
Users have also raised concerns about content that encourages eating disorders without explicitly glorifying them. “I’ve seen some videos, especially from the guy community on TikTok, saying things about how they’d never get with a girl unless she was under a certain weight,” 17-year-old Emy told Buzzfeed in a message, “or how some girls, and I quote, ‘need to put down the big mac and eat a fu_king salad.’”
Emy says that simply trying to avoid such content doesn’t help. “I try to scroll past it but when you see it so often it kind of sticks,” she said. “I try not to let it get to me too much, but it does hit me especially seeing comments on plus-sized female’s posts where they body shame her.”
Why Is It “For You?”
For users receiving unwanted “proana” (pro-anorexia) recommendations, the question is why these videos show up in their feeds in the first place. TikTok’s “For You” feed shows users content determined by the kind of content they’ve engaged with. However, as a report from Vice pointed out last year, it’s unclear exactly what constitutes engagement. The report states that the workings behind TikTok’s recommendations are completely unknown outside of the company, which has repeatedly declined to clarify them.
Using TikTok to Fight Eating Disorders
TikTok’s community guidelines prohibit videos that “promote eating habits that are likely to cause health issues.” Still, some experts are calling for TikTok to take a more active role in policing pro-eating disorder content, including Ysabel Gerrard of Instagram’s Suicide and Self-Injury Advisory Board. “First, TikTok should work with independent experts who research the relationship between social media and eating disorders to develop more nuanced and helpful policies,” Gerrard said in an op-ed for Wired.
She went on to assert that TikTok actually can and should be used to help victims of eating disorders. “TikTok’s core teenager user base are likeliest to experience an eating disorder,” Gerrard said, “meaning the platform could seize this opportunity to become a space for genuinely transformative help and support.”