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Surrey uni student warning over Instagram anorexia sites

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Published by the Eagle Radio News Team at 9:23am 14th September 2018. (Updated at 10:41am 14th September 2018)

There is a warning about the re-emergence of eating disorder communities on social media platforms.

It comes as Instagram has admitted it is not doing enough to police dangerous messages which encourage eating disorders.

It says the artificial intelligence it uses to protect vulnerable users needs improving, after communities promoting eating disorders were not picked up on the app.

Katie - a student at the University of Surrey - developed anorexia when she was 15, in part, she says, due to social media: "It was kind of glamourising them (eating disorders), and making them seem like something to aspire to."

She says so called "recovery groups" online can be just as damaging: "Everyone was getting tips from one another, on the face of it being nice, being supportive - but if you are only talking to other people who are suffering from this mental illness then every idea or every strategy that you bounce off each other is going to have a disordered side to it.

"I'd post breakfast, and it had to look absolutely perfect, if it didn't look perfect I couldn't eat it.

"And if it wasn't a certain amount of calories, or carbs, or fat, then I couldn't eat it."

Since 2016,  Instagram has held a policy that whenever a user searches for potentially harmful topics like "#proanorexia", a pop-up comes up as a warning and points them to where they can get help before they can access the content.

As per the platform's own rules, these pop-ups should accompany any search terms related to the sensitive topics.

However, Sky News discovered almost a dozen hashtags that are freely open with no warning while seemingly promoting unhealthy and dangerous attitudes towards food and body image.

The hashtag search terms were slight variations or different spellings on others that have been flagged up.

Instagram added the warnings within a few hours of being made aware, and admitted that the machine learning used for the past six months to root out these terms and flag them up is still a work in progress.

Former bulimic Daniel Magson, who is now vice chair of Anorexia & Bulimia Care charity, said social networks like Instagram need to do more to educate and protect users.

He said: "It is incredibly dangerous and a real health risk.

"It's not a safe space at all and these communities are promoting things like 'these are the best places to dine with private toilets for afterwards'.

"They promote the best ways to injure or self-harm and that should not be allowed."

Instagram says it keeps the hashtag topics live unless they frequently promote dangerous practices.

This is done on the advice of charities they are partnered with who aim to intervene when necessary.

The social network recently announced it is doubling the number of people working across safety and security teams for Facebook and Instagram to 20,000 by the end of 2018.

This includes a team of 7,500 content reviewers.

The company, which is owned by Facebook, said in a statement: "We care deeply about making Instagram a place where people feel empowered, inspired and comfortable to express themselves.

"Every day, millions of people use Instagram to strengthen relationships with friends and build communities of support, particularly around body image.

"Instagram was created to foster a safe, kind and supportive community and we're committed keeping it so."

A study last year by the Royal Society for Public Health suggested that of the big five social networks (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube), Instagram has the most negative impact on users.

The news comes as tens of thousands of people across the world are predicted to be taking the month off social media as part of the Scroll Free September campaign.

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