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Recovery in a disordered world: how online ads fuel the eating disorder fire

Crash diets. Weight loss supplements. Calorie tracking apps. If you use the internet, you’ve no doubt seen adverts for products that claim to make you healthier but often do anything but. For people with eating disorders, these adverts are extra harmful.

Last August, Beat ran a survey of 182 people with experience of eating disorders. We wanted to understand more about how they feel online advertising has affected them. And the results were worrying.

I want to avoid these I still get bombarded.

For many, it felt like the adverts were inescapable. 64% of respondents felt they were personally targeted by harmful adverts. Some even felt that internet searches for information and support about their eating disorder were leading algorithms for sites and apps to show them harmful content. And with helpful, pro-recovery content being shown based on what they believed to be the same algorithms, some people felt conflicted about whether to report the ads.

[I’m] 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.

While a lot of people didn’t point to online advertising as the cause of their eating disorder, many felt that it could reinforce harmful ideas, encourage harmful behaviour, and set people back in their hard-fought recovery journey. They saw online advertising as promoting an unhealthy thin ideal, encouraging them to compare themselves to others, normalising unhealthy behaviour, and validating eating disorder thoughts.

They skew my perception of what is rational, healthy behaviour.

Some thought the harm these adverts caused went beyond that, with one describing their eating disorder as having “spiraled” after they bought diet pills shown on a pop-up ad.

So how do we tackle this?

Participants had solutions as well as concerns: greater regulation, trigger warnings and the ability to opt out, as well as more body diversity rather than promoting just one body type. And they stressed the need for more consideration, awareness and literacy around eating disorders in the media and among the general public.

Within social media companies, it seems people are having some of the same ideas. It’s great to see Instagram adding a feature that lets users limit how much they see certain ads – just go to “Ads” in your Instagram app settings, search “body weight control” under “Ad topics”, and select “See less”.

We hope other companies will follow their lead. There’s no doubt that social media companies have a responsibility to protect their users. And while people can take some steps to protect themselves, they need the right tools to make informed decisions.

In the meantime, Beat’s done more work in this area with Loughborough University and the University of Bristol, as well as people with personal experience of eating disorders. This video explores the impact the internet can have on people with eating disorders, and gives helpful tips for keeping yourself safe.

And if you want to read more about this study, you can head to our research section here.