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Online advertising and eating disorders

In August 2021, Beat conducted a survey of 182 people with lived experience of eating disorders to understand more about their perspectives of how online advertising has impacted them. This was a 14-item survey, which involved six demographic questions, six multiple choice and checklist questions, and two open-ended questions.

Almost all those who took part (96%) reported having encountered adverts online which could be harmful in the context of their eating disorder. The adverts that most participants reported encountering were Weight Loss Programs (89%), closely followed by Weight Loss Apps (76%) and Intermittent Fasting Adverts (73%).

The frequency with which participants reported seeing these harmful adverts was concerning. Of the participants, 80% reported seeing these adverts at least once a day, 40% saw these adverts multiple times a day, and 13% saw these adverts more than five times daily.

Pervasiveness of online advertising: A ‘constant barrage’

People with lived experience of eating disorders described a ‘constant barrage of advertising targeting weight loss’.

The adverts were framed as relentless (‘always seeing’, ‘on every platform I use,’ ‘throughout the day’, ‘all the time’, ‘everywhere. All day. Influencing me’, ‘I am bombarded’, ‘constant reminder’, ‘they follow you around on the internet’, ‘they’re everywhere’) and difficult to ignore (‘it sucks you in!’, ‘will immediately catch my eye’, ‘hard to ignore when it is every day’).

Many wrote that the adverts were inescapable: ‘I want to avoid these… I still get bombarded’, ‘constant weight loss adverts that I don’t wish to see’, ‘really hard to escape’, ‘Unable to get away from the feelings. If I’m not thinking at that moment about food or my body image, whilst I’m just scrolling something will come up and the feelings will come up too’.

Some participants described their dependency on social media. Despite using online platforms for the purposes of eating disorder recovery, they described being unable to avoid adverts promoting weight loss on these platforms. The constant exposure to these adverts left many feeling powerless:

‘I feel like I have zero control over any adverts that pop up on my social media feeds […] it can be incredibly frustrating.’

Personally targeted

‘It’s really screwed up that […] occasionally using searches for eating disorder related information/support gets you […] targeted with fasting/dieting adverts.’

Most survey respondents (64%) felt they were personally targeted by adverts that were harmful in the context of their eating disorder. The platforms that were most often reported as platforms targeting weight loss adverts were: Instagram (75%), followed by Facebook (57%), general online browsing (37%), YouTube (36%) and Tik Tok (32%).

Many reported feeling personally targeted by adverts promoting weight loss: ‘as if my phone knew my weight and was therefore directing meal replacement shakes and fasting apps at me’, ‘I believed these adverts were being made just for me’.

Some felt the reason they were targeted with adverts promoting weight loss was that they had searched for information and support for their eating disorder: ‘It's really screwed up that something about occasionally using searches for eating disorder related information/support gets you flagged as someone to be targeted with fasting/dieting adverts!’ One respondent with lived experience of an eating disorder reported that they had been asked to represent weight loss products on their social media.

The lack of transparency as to whether they were being personally targeted by adverts promoting weight loss led to doubt and confusion. Some participants reported these adverts, and the ‘algorithms’ they felt could be behind them, as a source of conflict, with recovery content and weight loss adverts being directed to them simultaneously.

Online advertising makes the recovery journey more difficult

Many participants wrote that online advertising hindered their recovery. Many participants described the ‘hard work’ of recovery: ‘trying hard’, ‘actively avoiding seeing anything about weight loss/anything diet related’, ‘trying to get better, trying to recover’. Encountering harmful online advertising was framed by participants as a ‘set back’ in their recovery, which ‘can strike you off guard’ and which they have ‘zero control’ over.

This led to anger in many participants: ‘It’s really screwed up’; ‘It can be incredibly frustrating that any hard work can be set back by simply seeing one advert!’

Advertising as fuel rather than fire

‘Not the root cause. But it definitely cheers my ED on.’

Responses to the question of whether, and how far, participants felt that online advertising had contributed to their eating disorder were mixed.

Online advertising was described by a large group of participants as having a substantial impact on their eating disorder, as a ‘huge factor’ or ‘vital part’. Many participants commented that, while it would be an oversimplification to argue that advertising ‘cause[d]’ their eating disorder (‘trivializing of the severity and complexity of my illness’), ‘it definitively reinforces feelings and promotes disordered behaviors.’ Online advertising was not seen as the sole root cause, but a contributing factor to maintenance, relapse, and hindered recovery.

A smaller group of participants, however, framed adverts as a having a more directly causational role: one, for example, described their eating disorder having ‘spiraled’ after they bought diet pills ‘that I saw on a pop-up advert.’ Another participant reported that their ‘eating disorder began after I got a TikTok account.’

Diet culture

It feels like I'm having to recover in a world that is so disordered.’

The adverts that most reported were Weight Loss Programs (89%), closely followed by Weight Loss Apps (76%) and Intermittent Fasting Adverts (73%).

Online advertising was seen to promote an unhealthy thin ideal, which created conflict for those in recovery from an eating disorder. Diet culture was seen to validate eating disorder thoughts (‘it reinforces all the messages that your eating disorder gives you’), encourage body comparison (‘it has led to thoughts of comparison’) and normalise unhealthy behaviour around food and exercise (‘they skew my perception of what is rational, healthy behaviour’). As a result, many described feeling pulled in two directions:

‘It’s a constant reminder that society praises weight loss when you are trying hard to do the opposite.’

‘…it does play a significant role in promoting the idea that thinness equals health and beauty, which is a belief system that my eating disorder feeds off.’

Calls to action

Many suggested actions that they felt social media companies and advertisers should take to prevent the harms caused by online advertising.

Among these suggestions were:

1) Greater online regulation and banning of adverts for specific products:

‘Adverts for slimming pills and diet apps and products should be banned.’

‘Diet pills and slimming teas … should be illegal!’

‘…all social media advertising related to weight loss needs to be regulated in a similar way to TV.’

2) Greater body diversity in adverts

‘I would love more body diversity in ads also’.

3) An easy and clear way to opt out of targeted weight loss adverts online, or a feature that allows users to choose what they can see advertised.

‘There should be an option to opt out of these targeted weight loss ads.’

‘I wish there could be a feature on social media that would let you choose what to see advertised.’

‘I haven’t found a way to change advertising preferences to get rid of them.’

‘You should be able to opt out of seeing advertising that is harmful such as alcohol, gambling, dieting.’

4) Calories not to be displayed in adverts:

‘[I] don’t see why calories should be featured in any sort of advertising – it's not necessary.’

5) Trigger warnings around weight loss adverts:

‘I think advertisements should come with trigger warnings where we’re allowed to view if we wish.’

6) Participants flagged the need for greater consideration, awareness and literacy around eating disorders, both in the media and wider public:

‘The media needs to be more considerate of eating disorders and the content that they post as it can be significantly harmful.’

‘It would be easier if [eating disorders] were spoken about, or how to talk about it in schools. Education is so vital.’

What you do to protect yourself online?

Beat recently collaborated with researchers from Loughborough University and Bristol, and people with lived experience of eating disorders to create a video exploring the impact the internet can have on people with eating disorders and give tips to protect people with eating disorders online. This video gives some helpful suggestions about how to look after yourself online.

How does social media affect people with eating disorders?

How to see fewer weight loss or fitness adverts on Instagram

Instagram have recently added a feature that allows users to see a list of adverts which Instagram have targeted at them, and to choose to see less of certain adverts. Follow these steps to choose to see fewer weight loss adverts:

What should social media companies do?

Social media companies have a responsibility to protect users on their platforms. While individuals can take some steps to protect themselves online, social media users need to be armed before they can make informed decisions about their social media use. Social media companies need to take action to increase transparency around online advertising and allow users to make informed choices.