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There’s Dangerous Pro-Eating Disorder Content on TikTok — Here’s How to Talk to Your Teens About It

TikTok has grown to be one of the top social platforms for teenagers. With the boundless range of videos touching on wellness, food, fashion and more, it’s been a place for teens and young adults to connect and create and find community during the pandemic. However, for all the good you can find on TikTok, it’s important to be aware that some of the content (like any social media site) can be dangerous or promote unhealthy behaviors: particularly the pro-eating disorder content found to be on the rise earlier this year.

Since the pandemic began, there’s been a tremendous amount of pressure to remain a specific definition of “fit.” At-home workouts that require little to no equipment started to trend almost immediately upon lockdown. From then, there’s been a stream of videos glorifying intermittent fasting or so-called “clean eating,” to others where users show “what I eat in a day” to their followers and streamline diet culture. Thousands of comments praise the user’s diets and have vowed to commit to eating less or working out more. With that, negative body talk and body image clearly saw an uptick based on the comments sections. And when we mix in impressionable young people, toxic diet culture and the stresses of lockdown—it can be a dangerous, slippery slope toward disordered eating and exercise behaviors.

With TikTok’s current algorithm on their ‘For You Page’, users can unwittingly stumble upon relevant content that promotes disordered eating. All it takes is one search down a hashtag such as ‘#diet’ to curate related tags for #proana that streamline pro-anorexia habits and give advice on how to maintain these dangerous habits.

These pro-eating disorder communities have always existed across social media sites; a place where users could message one another during a purge and share binge diet ‘tips’ or those in recovery seeking support. On TikTok, a simple ‘like’ on a video tagged ‘#thinspiration’ will continue to gather content related to weight loss. Pro-anorexia terms used to be directed to a support page entitled, ‘Need Help?’ — and the community guidelines say that content promoting self-harm is not permitted on the site. 

“To avoid normalizing, encouraging, or triggering self-harm behavior, we do not allow imagery that depicts such behavior, regardless of the user’s intention of posting it,” per their guidelines. “We remove content that encourages or may encourage acts that are likely to lead to physical self-inflicted injury. Content that promotes eating habits that are likely to cause health issues is also not allowed on the platform.”

However, the ban isn’t totally perfect: minor, intentional misspelling of these words can be a way for people to successfully maneuver around unregulated content. And some standard work-out content and “clean eating” wellness content can still contribute to disordered attitudes in young people or trigger individuals in recovery

Everyone has different variations of triggers and content that can be particularly harmful to themselves. TikTok outlines limiting unwanted content with their ‘Not Interested’ icon that can be accessed while on the “For You” page. After clicking, users will be shown less related content. Another option is to turn on ‘Restricted Mode’ which is intended to limit inappropriate videos. Similarly, TikTok encourages all of its audience to report damaging content. But still, the problem remains.

How to stop this from showing up on your feeds

The safest option is to avoid engaging with content that will harm one’s mental health. Once you like, share, or watch there is no guarantee that the platform won’t continue to show you similar videos. If one does find themselves amid a traumatic series of videos, it’s best to delete the account and start fresh with a new personalized feed.

Ashley Lytwyn, a dietitian nutritionist who specializes in treating patients with eating disorders, says, “This reset[s] the algorithm so that food accounts, disordered eating accounts, or bikini accounts aren’t constantly flashing on your feed”. 

By interacting with more and more lighter content like videos of pets or gardening, this will alter one’s current For You Page. Although deleting one’s account may be the safest and easiest option, not everyone wants to start from scratch and lose the following that they have built. TikTok’s algorithm was designed to produce content specific to every unique user; and just as it has it’s cons it can be equally as beneficial if you engage with the right content. Being deliberate in the content you engage with can lead to a positive experience on the app.

Contextualizing and talking about ED content (& positive body image) with your kids

As SheKnows has previously reported, a huge part of helping your kids navigate negative body talk and dangerous diet culture habits in the media comes from helping them fine-tune their internal B.S. detector: “You want them to be able to make their own decisions for themselves. You want to inquire a little bit about it but [talk some sense into them] if they’re going to be that vulnerable,” as Donna Fish, L.C.S.W.-R., author of Take the Fight Out of Food and expert on disordered eating told SheKnows. “Kids are vulnerable to extremes and that’s why you’ve got to know your kid and help them figure out how to make decisions so they’re not the follower, the lemming running off the cliff.”

So you can have conversations about these kind of topics — about bodies and food and the way our culture is perpetually trying to make you feel bad about both. They can be uncomfortable at first, as many coming-of-age, getting older conversations with your older children and teens can be, but opening the door (even just a crack) and letting them know you’re a safe place to talk about their fears, anxieties and the things that make them self-conscious can help you better prepare them to encounter damaging content like this.

It’s also important to constantly reinforce healthy eating habits in your own home — to discourage negative body talk or diet talk and set positive examples of how to treat your body with love. Talk to your child and have an open dialogue in regards to their current mental health and create a space where they can discuss their insecurities. Positive reinforcements that highlight body positivity can also be so crucial to model all the ways they can be happy and healthy in their bodies. 

A version of this story was published October 2020.

Before you go, check out some of our favorite inspiring quotes about having a positive relationship with food


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