‘Pro-Eating Disorder Bubble’ on Instagram Sparks Outcry (1)

(Updates with Meta comment starting in seventh paragraph.)

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Lawmakers are demanding answers from Meta Platforms Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg after new evidence emerged that the company is pushing dangerous eating disorder content on children and teens.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has repeatedly come under fire for what lawmakers on both sides of the aisle view as a failure to protect young people online from targeted advertisement. Former Facebook data engineer Frances Haugen’s testimony before a Senate panel last year, in which she claimed the company’s algorithms are exploiting kids and teens, brought the issue into the limelight.

In an April 29 letter to Zuckerberg, a group of Democratic lawmakers cited research released this month by Fairplay — an advocacy organization for children — showing Instagram algorithms are feeding young people accounts and content encouraging extreme weight loss and restrictive diets.

The “pro-eating disorder bubble” includes 90,000 unique accounts and reaches 20 million unique followers on the platform, the study states. Children as young as nine and 10, with a median age of 19, are following three or more eating disorder accounts, it adds.

In their letter, the Democrats said previous studies showed Meta also has failed to stop ads for tobacco and alcohol; is continuing to target teens based on their personal information after it announced it would limit doing so; and has made body image issues worse for teenage girls. Signing the letter were Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), and Reps. Lori Trahan (Mass.) and Kathy Castor (Fla.).

“All of these failures are powerful evidence that Facebook’s advertising and content amplification practices are fundamentally inconsistent with young users’ wellbeing” they wrote.

Meta spokesperson Liza Crenshaw said such reports fail to take into account that it can do more harm than good to completely remove content related to eating disorders.

“Experts and safety organizations have told us it’s important to strike a balance between allowing people to share their stories or struggle with recovery, while still removing any content that encourages or promotes eating disorders, which is what we try to do,” Crenshaw said.

Meta has begun testing a new “nudges” feature that aims to prevent teens from dwelling on content that isn’t “inspiring” or “supportive,” Crenshaw added.

The lawmakers asked Zuckerberg whether he would support legislation to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which aims to protect the privacy of kids 13 and younger. Markey and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) last year introduced such legislation—the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (S. 1628)—which would prohibit internet companies from collecting personal information from anyone 13 to 15 years old without their consent.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maria Curi in Washington at mcuri@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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