Can Social Networks Tackle Unhealthy Body Images Without Resorting To Censorship?

(Credit: Vice's Motherboard Blog)

Pro-anorexia (pro-ANA) and -bulimia (pro-MIA) communities tend to promote thinspiration, or “thinspo,” material, which encompasses images and messages that encourage thinness often to the point of self-harm. Thinspo images have been chased from social network to social network — but despite the fact that many platforms have policies discouraging their promotion, the material frequently ends up making its way back, even on sites with outright bans. Two recent petitions urging other major tech sites to take action against thinspo highlight the delicate balance that tech companies walk between protecting users from harmful content and censoring free speech, as well as the larger question of the effectiveness of censorship in helping those struggling with body image issues help themselves.

What is and is not acceptable on private social media sites is governed by content policies — meaning that platforms like Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter all have control over the type of content they allow on their networks to a certain extent. In fact, tech companies and their content policies have arguably have the most influence over the development of online freedom of expression on an international scale. While most tech companies oppose censoring political or religious content, many — including Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest — have moved to ban content promoting self harm, such as pro-ANA and pro-MIA images or pages, to various degrees of success.

A recent petition calls on Twitter to join their ranks, urging signers to “[h]elp make Twitter accountable for managing the users of its service to stop this harmful trend by banning thinspiration hashtags and monitoring dangerous user activity.” However, banning hashtags like “#proANA” or “#thinspo” may just lead to the development of new hashtags, or push users onto yet another community. And historically, Twitter has taken a hands-off approach to monitoring or punishing user speech, giving a free range to porn users and controversial content — they’re even being sued in France for refusing to reveal the identities of anti-Semitic users who used (and later deleted) a hashtag that translates to “a good jew.”

The second petition is addressed to search giant Google, in response to the fact that the search giant indexes millions of results for pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia sites. Instead of asking for those sites to be banned or de-listed, however, activists are asking for a banner to be displayed with information for a helpline and recovery support at the top of results to eating disorder queries. This move is not unprecedented — results for Google queries related to suicide currently display the number for the National Suicide Hotline at the top, and Pinterest displays the number for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) hotline on searches for thinspo related terms.

There is no question that eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia are a serious issue. According to NEDA, eating disorders affect 30 million people in the United States, and have the highest mortality of any psychological illness — with 4 percent rates for anorexia, 3.9 percent for bulimia, and 5.2 percent for other unspecified eating disorders. Many of the behaviors associated with these illnesses start early: 42 percent of 1st-3rd grade girls already want to be thinner. By their teen years, over half of girls (and nearly a third of boys) use unhealthy weight control behaviors like skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, or taking laxatives.

Media images, including those shared online, are part of the problem. As a 2010 statement from The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ in the United Kingdom notes, “[a]n increasing body of research now indicates that the media has a role in both providing a social context for the development and maintenance of eating disorders.” With some 90 percent of teens using social media, many are exposed to online communities that actively encourage the unhealthy behavior associated with eating disorders by glorifying the results or discouraging sufferers from seeking treatment.

But research from last year also indicates that pro-ANA and pro-MIA online communities provide a level of support that can keep eating disorder suffers functional until they reach the point of seeking treatment — so outright bans on this type content do risk cutting off sufferers from their support network, or pushing the them further underground. Given the resiliency of pro-ANA and pro-MIA online communities, working to connect sufferers with the resources they need to battle their illness may be a more effective public health strategy than attempting blanket censorship on thinspo content online.