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Social media sites need to do more to eliminate pro-anorexia messages, but they aren't behind the rise in eating disorders

The number of children and teenagers seeking help for eating disorders has risen by 110 per cent in the past three years. How much does social media play a part?

It may sound far-fetched to hear that a bunch of photographs blogged and hash-tagged alongside ‘motivational’ quotes on social websites aimed at young people are actually easily accessible breeding grounds for a whole host of dangerous beliefs and behaviours such as starvation, depression, loneliness, self-harm and suicidal ideation, but sadly, it’s true.

Hundreds of thousands of people (let’s not presume they’re all teenage white girls; there’s no proof of that rubbish) sign up to these websites and contribute or like, comment and share these disturbing images and destructive messages.

We’re not talking catwalk models or airbrushed celebrities here, and some of the slogans make Kate Moss’ famous slur ‘Nothing tastes like skinny feels’ sound quite saintly. This stuff is dark. We’re talking emaciated bodies on the brink of death, freshly torn skin alongside dripping razor blades and lonely figures bent double over toilet bowls. The message tends to be that you, the viewer, should be empathising, encouraging or even competing. The image and the hashtags which define it draw you in and you become a member of a club. Hate yourself? Join us. Angry at the world but only take it out on yourself? Join us. Think you’re worthless? Join us. Want to self-destruct? Join us. For many, websites like these are the only place that young people feel they can openly express the way they feel, where they can gain immediate acceptance and what appears to be support; it’s a safe place to retreat to and that can be extremely addictive.

Yesterday, an exclusive in The Independent on Sunday revealed that the number of children and teenagers seeking help for eating disorders has risen by 110 per cent in the past three years. The headline attributed this dramatic increase to social media, but as much as many people would love there to be, there is no scapegoat for eating disorders. There is no one person, group of people, movement, motion or thing at which we can point the figure and say “That’s why this happens” or “This is why the numbers are increasing.” It belittles those who suffer and detracts from the fact that an eating disorder is a mental illness and a pretty damn deadly one at that.

For a long time, I was so against making any association between eating disorders and social media for fear of perpetuating the myth that it was a lifestyle choice or a diet gone-too-far, that I didn’t speak or write about it at all. Now though, it’s starting to feel that the dangers of behaviours encouraged on these sites and the sheer volume of young, vulnerable users is starting to outweigh the dangers of further stereotyping. Something has to be done and it has to be done soon.

In 2012, a handful of leading social media platforms took action against pro-anorexia and pro-self-harm. Here’s what each had to say:

Instagram: “Any account found encouraging or urging users to embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders… will result in a disabled account with a warning.”

Facebook: “Facebook takes threats of self-harm very seriously. We remove any promotion or encouragement of… eating disorders.”

Tumblr: “Don’t post content that actively promotes… anorexia, bulimia or other eating disorders… We aim to sustain Tumblr as a place that facilitates awareness, support and recovery, and to remove only those blogs that cross the line into active promotion or glorification of self-harm.”

In the main, they have each failed miserably. Part of the problem is that if one hashtag is blocked, another similar shortened or misspelt version appears and the same material is replicated there instead. The alternative hashtag will be listed alongside those that are accepted and bam, it grows into its own. What I find incredibly worrying is that very often, users of sites such as Instagram list both helpful and unhelpful hashtags together, meaning that a person looking for help with recovery might search for #anorexiarecovery and very soon find themselves surrounded and pressurised by tempting streams of the most darkly relentless forms of eating disorder fuel.

I have argued many times that the ‘Pro-anorexia’ and ‘Thinspiration’ worlds are just far too big a monster to ever be able to tame or control and that those who use them – devious and clever by their very nature – will always be able to find some way to continue their depressing party. Something happened last year, though, that made me think. David Cameron announced huge changes to protect young people through the introduction of child porn filters. Soon after, it became apparent that these filters had actually made it impossible for many to access Childline and Refuge’s websites, gay and lesbian content, sex education materials and mental health websites, to name just a few.

That was one massive case of over-egging to the detriment of those the Government were apparently attempting to help protect; not good at all, but it made me wish that someone would make a similar mistake in the hope that thinspiration, fitspiration, thigh-gaps and all things pro-ana and pro-mia would be blasted into cyber hell forever. I wish I could say that that is a ridiculous idea, go back to my defeatist guns and say it’ll always be there, lurking in the web’s undergrowth so what’s the point in pushing for filters and blocks which could push it further underground – what’s the point in trying at all? We’ll all get bored of it soon and move on…

But no, I’ve changed my mind. Whilst I still strongly believe that social media is not and never will be to blame for eating disorders, I have seen with my own eyes the sheer number of sickening, distressing and undeniably damaging material that is so easily accessible to millions of impressionable people and want to urge those in power to take action. Death to deathspiration.