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Anorexia, binge eating and how social networks are a risk for eating disorders

A person who binge eats. Another that makes challenges to eat kilos of food in a few minutes. And another that gives tips to lose weight that make many specialists raise their hands to their heads. Social networks have many faces and one of the most controversial is their relationship with food. Whether due to its excess or the opposite, many videos on YouTube, TikTok or Instagram are the worst nightmare for those with eating behavior disorders (ED).

Two totally opposite examples but that reflect one of the problems of these platforms. On the one hand, the youtuber Nikocado Avocado, who went from being a vegan to being one of the most famous faces of the mukbang, a phenomenon based on seeing influencers eating huge amounts of food. Avocado has gone from 66 kilos when he started his carcass in 2014 to weighing more than 160 today

On the other hand, fellow youtuber Eugenia Cooney, a woman known for her significant weight problem. Watching the videos of her gives chills. Slim face, skeleton arms and a body that is all bone.

These two stories have, in principle, little in common, but both are promoting a culture that is at least toxic with food. One for binge-eating, without control and with significant effects on health; the influencer for showing an image that has been used by communities of women victims of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. At Hipertextual we talked to a psychologist who is an expert in these disorders about how social networks have a very important impact on people who suffer from them.

Nikolado Avocado, the most controversial youtuber of the 'mukbang'

YouTube We start with the youtuber and with the mukbang phenomenon. He started in 2010 on AfreecaTV, a South Korean channel that allowed content creators to interact with viewers. It was there that the term was popularized, which is born from the Korean word muk-da (food) and bang-song (television).

Live recordings of people eating large amounts of food while telling stories became increasingly popular in South Korea, where the most followed influencers in this category are. Some have achieved 75 million views and more than 9 million subscribers, as is the case with Sulgi.

The mukbang videos conquer some because they see it as an ode to food. Despite the fact that in most cases the food is very unhealthy, it gives them pleasure to see how they binge. For others, surely many, the incentive is ASMR. Those videos with noises that touch a fine line between pleasure and displeasure. The noise of chewing is what best defines that sensation that some people find intense pleasure and relaxation. Others can't listen for more than a minute.

This phenomenon has had important health consequences for the youtuber Nikocado Avocado. With about 100 extra kilos since he started posting these videos, he has sleep problems, broke three ribs from a cough and admitted to having erection problems.

From 100 kilos more to a 'skeleton': the other side of the coin

Eugenia Cooney has been a well-known figure on social media for many years. She started with videos on YouTube focused on fashion and makeup but she is not famous for many people because of that, but because of the criticism she receives for promoting eating disorders.

Since he started being a youtuber, Cooney drew attention for his extreme thinness and over the years the disorder has become a reality. Her emaciated figure has been the target of attacks and harassment in the comments of the videos, although that never stopped Eugenia Cooney from publishing more content related to fashion and makeup.

The problem is that for people with eating disorders, the youtuber is one of the people who faithfully follow on social networks. But it does not violate any platform rules. The different platforms have implemented measures to identify this type of content and block it, but there are always loose fringes.

Winks to the community promoted by the TCA On the one hand, psychologists point out that removing Cooney's videos is not the solution to a problem that affects millions of people in the world and that, especially in the case of young women and girls, they will find other figures that promote a specific type of beauty.

But, on the other hand, it is also true that the content created by the youtuber is the reflection of a body heavily damaged by an eating disorder. Eugenia Cooney has even been accused of aligning herself with online groups of women with anorexia or bulimia. Pro-Ana is a digital community where members share photos of extremely skinny women. The name of the group refers to “Ana”, the code name used for anorexia. “Mia” refers to bulimia and these two names are referred to in the community as if they were friends to identify the disorder.

It is not a secret that this community exists, but on social networks it is difficult to identify and block, despite the fact that it has been warned that they promote eating disorders and do not identify it as a disease that should be treated. Eugenia Cooney does not refer to Ana or Mia in her videos —that would be very obvious— but she does wink at the content of the Pro-Ana community.

For example, in a video he shows a butterfly necklace to his viewers and these insects are a symbol for the people who are part of the group; a way to show that they are part of the club.

TikTok fights against the TCA, but it is of little use

Cooney also has an account on Instagram, but not on TikTok. However, on this network it also has visibility due to the criticism it receives from some users. It is on this same platform that thousands of videos of diets, food and sports routines that can be harmful are published daily . Content such as that of Marina Yers, whose advice is refuted by experts and is even identified as dangerous. Last year, the platform blocked some hashtags that promote eating disorders. However, an investigation by The Guardian showed that such videos were still accessible.

The accounts with content that speaks positively about eating disorders continue to post the videos, albeit with more subtle winks. TikTok has identified the problem and promised to ban accounts and remove content that violates the company's guidelines. “As content changes, we continue to work with expert partners, update our technology and review our processes to ensure we can respond to new and emerging harmful activity,” a TikTok spokesperson told The Guardian.

It is true that many profiles and content promoting eating disorders have been blocked, but the problem has not completely disappeared. For example, for a person who may be in a delicate health situation related to weight, the algorithm recognizes their interests —of course related to food and sports routines to lose weight—and offers content of this type. The Times did the test by creating a fake account. He searched for videos related to weight loss and from there he began to receive content related to this topic, which in some cases was even dangerous. The Wall Street Journal also investigated and warned about the dangers of TikTok for girls with eating disorders.

Isabel Sais is a psychologist who is an expert in eating disorders and treats people who suffer from this problem. The first warning sign is that the age at which the disorder begins is getting earlier. So is the time at which children or young people begin to actively use social networks . The psychologist clarifies that eating disorders have a multifactorial origin, such as the personal part and the family environment. Digital is another factor. “Social networks are a risk factor, as is being a teenager and being a woman,” says Sais to Hipertextual.

Young people are beginning to use social networks earlier, although the problem is that parents are able to learn from these platforms to inform their children about how they should be used. Teenagers, Isabel Sais explains, have a need to belong to a group and gain acceptance. If they are not given support to work on their critical judgment, he continues, in the end influencers who publish content that is harmful to people with an eating disorder will be given truth.

The normalization of content that is not normal Perhaps not all, but surely almost all TikTok users have seen a video in which they have identified inadvisable behaviors related to food or routines to lose weight. The problem is that they hardly attract attention anymore because it has been normalized for us to see this type of content. Social networks have many positive things, but this reality also exists.

If years ago the focus was on the Tumblr thinspo —the communities that promoted anorexia and bulimia— now this phenomenon has passed to TikTok. Although eating disorders can affect people of all ages, adolescents are the most exposed . They are also the majority users on this platform. The data is worrying: in Spain, about 400,000 people suffer from an eating behavior disorder. In the case of children under 12 years of age, there has even been an increase of 15%, according to a study carried out at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute. In the United States, the figure reaches an increase of 119% in the same age range.

'What I eat in one day' It is easy to block hashtags that promote TCA but it is more complicated to avoid “disguised” content. This could be the case of the videos of “What I eat in a day”, also in English, I eat in a day”, in which the content creators summarize their daily diet. They are not only on TikTok, but also on other platforms, but it is on this social network that they are best known and where unhealthy behaviors are advised and that prioritize weight loss.

There are cases that attract particular attention, such as the videos of a girl who is recovering from an eating disorder and who shares what she eats daily on TikTok. In a comment, responds that she thinks she eats too much .

It is not only the content that each one publishes on their profile, but also the comments that the people who publish it can receive. For example, this person's response does not violate any rules, but for a girl who is overcoming an ED, being told that she eats too much can cause feelings of guilt and, at worst, cases, relapses.

The relationship between TCA and networks

Millions of daily posts, plus millions of profiles and other millions of comments on all social networks. How can the impact of this ecosystem on people with eating disorders be controlled? It cannot be done in its entirety, but there are some studies that, within their possibilities, have produced some results.

The study Use of social networks and risk of suffering from eating disorders in young people, published in April 2021, showed that there is a significant direct relationship between the frequency of use of

networks and the risk of suffering from eating disorders. “This result is supported by previous research in which the use of social networks was related to the presence of eating disorder symptoms,” he says.

Isabel Sais sees the consequences of social networks like TikTok every day with her patients.

“It is necessary for the professional to address what type of networks the patient uses, what accounts they follow. Just as a family member has to know the accounts of their minor, in the sessions we also address what type of bodies we see, what nutritional guidelines we follow… you have to explore that in consultation, also to find out where they got certain information from and how to dismantle certain myths”.

Isabel Sais The psychologist recapitulates that one of the aspects that patients with eating disorders comment on most frequently is the danger of the challenges they see in TikTok videos or food recommendations. Again, Sais insists on the importance of re-educating family members and people around the patient, as well as himself, to provide truthful information and promote common sense and critical judgment. “Also to encourage the cleaning of accounts, of people we follow, and even to take a vacation from social networks,” says Sais.

The 'haters' are not the only problem Digital platforms can be the perfect tool for a person to feel supported and can even be a help to overcome traumas or psychological problems. It is not a novelty to say that also for the opposite. While some users externalize their moods or personal situations, others use this to make critical or even hateful comments.

Haters exist everywhere and are difficult to control, but the relationship between social networks and the TCA goes beyond a few unscrupulous people. YouTube and TikTok have users like Nikocado Avocado and Eugenia Cooney behind them. They are not doing anything illegal but their very unhealthy behavior affects the millions of users who have access to their videos. They are two opposite cases that make visible a much larger problem that affects millions of people in the world.

The controversy of the Roxy ad

Beyond the haters and the control of social networks in terms of content, every relatively short time there is a controversy that reigns on some platform for a few days. This week the focus has been on an advertisement for Roxy in which four women with different bodies appear. One of them is large.

In this regard, the presenter Adriana Abenia published a comment on Instagram in which she claimed to claim the diversity of the female body, but she believed that “advocating diseases such as obesity seems dangerous to me”.

Abenia encouraged her followers to talk about this topic and that was enough for thousands of people to start discussing regulatory bodies, about the pressure that many women suffer to have the supposedly ideal body. Also what is considered healthy or not. The conversation crossed the barriers of Instagram and reached Twitter and TikTok.

The advertisement of a brand became a discussion about what a woman's body should be like and, how could it be otherwise, TCAs have indirectly appeared in the conversation. To make visible points of view in which it is criticized that we live in a society that has normalized the publication of videos with unhealthy food advice but that does not tolerate obesity.

In the end, the controversy over the Roxy ad made a problem visible. In cases like this, social networks are positive. The expert psychologist in TCA believes that it is also important that the harmful influence of the use given to the platforms is turned around. “We can generate content that has a positive influence on adolescents who are at vulnerable ages. And give networks the opportunity to promote respect for the body, for body diversity and that we are all more than a size, a body type or a weight,” he concludes.