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Eating Disorder TikTok
TikTok's algorithm has exacerbated an already-huge problem. Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum.
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The app already faced backlash in early 2020 for its insufficient policing of eating disorder content

Content Warning: This article deals with eating disorders as well as other forms of mental illness. 

Ice-blonde women with a seemingly endless reserve of bell peppers and cream cheese, who shudder at the very thought of carbs — keto is their gospel, and TikTok their church.

“What I Ate Today” diatribes over jangly royalty-free guitar — iced coffee, iced coffee, and iced coffee.

Tropical protein shakes, a grimace from the young twenty-something as she chokes them down, perfect smiles for the camera, a thumbs-up and a promise of accountability to drink the lukewarm meal supplements every single day. A buzzing swarm of comments thanking her for her service, her proof of recovery.

Deeply unsustainable fitness regimens.

“Thinspo” masked as fashion content; as lifestyle “routine” videos; as body positivity.

Take the above, and put it on an endless repeat. You now have what my personal TikTok feed has looked like for most of 2020. 

I’m not proud of how easily I was captured by this corner of the popular video-sharing app; as someone in active recovery from my own eating disorder, I know that content like this is deeply harmful to those trying to escape the cruel cycle of mental illness. 

Jokes about suicide and self-harm tucked into a lip-syncing video or a foodless “morning routine” eventually eat away at even the most recovery-minded of individuals: these jabs welcome you into the TikTok eating disorder pit, with high view counts and the promise of a community (even if that community doesn’t always have the best of intentions).

And yet still I’ve stayed — ostensibly, for the other funny content on the platform, but at the expense of dozens of these kinds of videos on my feed every single day.

I’m old enough to remember social media’s last eating disorder crisis. Tumblr made headlines in 2012 when it implemented rules against self-harm blogs — rules which users easily circumvented through creative misspellings of popular eating disorders and an entire lexicon of code words. Tumblr was an anonymous safe space — at least, that’s what its pro-eating disorder sect preached it to be. 

In reality, Tumblr was a dangerous cesspit of graphic and glorifying images of bleeding and underfed bodies. Far from being a safe space, Tumblr was (and, in reality, still is, though to a lesser extent than in years past) an anonymous spot for the sick to get sicker.

This kind of content thrives on the anonymity of sites like Tumblr and TikTok, sites which suggest your posts to people you’ve almost certainly never met in real life. Pro-eating disorder content is much more heavily policed on sites like Facebook and Instagram, but these are sites where such content is less likely to be posted, anyway. They’re predicated on real-life social networks, where you know the people you’re posting for outside of the digital bubble, and who you’re less likely to show in great detail your struggles with mental illness.

TikTok is a monster of instant gratification, allowing its users to “go viral” without many followers. (You don’t need to show your face, either, so you can TikTok in total anonymity if you choose.) The platform’s algorithm is one of the best in the social media business, using a long list of indicators to decide what content users are likely willing to watch if it shows up on their feed. 

And once TikTok figures out what you’re into, it feeds you more and more of the same — even if you’ve asked to see less of it, even if you haven’t followed specific accounts which create that sort of content, even if you haven’t made that sort of content yourself. If you’ve watched a cooking video in its entirety, for example, TikTok will give you more and more cooking videos: the algorithm knows what it’s doing.

This model is the perfect storm for triggering pro-eating disorder content. Not learning from its digital predecessors, TikTok faced backlash in early 2020 for its insufficient policing of eating disorder content.

 A 1998 study found that the presence of eating disorders in individuals correlates with so-called “addictive personalities,” which makes individuals in recovery perfect targets for TikTok’s keep-you-scrolling algorithm. The more you watch, the more you’re fed by the algorithm, and the more you watch some more. It’s a dangerous cycle, one which BuzzFeed outlined in detail in a February investigative piece.

This is a dense problem, one with few realistic solutions. Pro-recovery content — rooted in true pursuit of a healthier and more balanced lifestyle — can be helpful to those looking to get better. Online communities can be a starting place for young adults to search for help. There’s utility in these platforms to talk about eating disorders without triggering vulnerable targets into having them. 

That’s what’s so frustrating: algorithms can’t tell the difference between true recovery and pseudo-recovery, 800-calorie meal plans and 2000-calorie ones. TikTok either has to censor all eating disorder content (which makes for a whack-a-mole-style guessing game of code words and misspellings à la 2012 Tumblr), or implement a stronger, more human approach to content moderation. Both of these solutions are problematic in some way, and so the root issue continues to stagnate, stoking the fire of the social media eating disorder echo chamber.

I deleted TikTok off my phone today.

Because, unfortunately, until content moderation on my favourite time-waster is quantifiably better; until I can be sure I can scroll through my feed safely and without the siren song of my illness calling to me from videos goading me to stop eating, to work out more, to try new diet teas; I need to take a break.

If you are struggling, there are several resources available for those struggling with eating disorders in Ottawa:

Hopewell Eating Disorder Support Centre: https://www.hopewell.ca/

CHEO: https://www.cheo.on.ca/en/resources-and-support/eating-disorders.aspx#Pamphlets 

Ottawa Crisis Line: 1-866-996-09

Canadian Mental Health Association: http://www.cmhaottawa.ca