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Protecting people from eating disorder content: The Online Safety Act

On Tuesday 9th January 2024, Instagram and Facebook announced that they will block under 18s from seeing harmful eating disorder, suicide and self-harm content. That means that even if eating disorder content is shared by someone that a teenager follows online, they won’t be able to see it, as young people will be automatically signed up to the most restrictive settings on the apps. Social media platforms will instead share content from mental health charities to help those struggling.

This move comes after The Online Safety Act became law on Thursday 26th October 2023. The law is designed to help protect people online across the UK, and for some time now we’ve been working behind the scenes to help protect those with eating disorders as part of this. This has included working closely with civil servants, supportive MPs and Peers, and partner organisations including Samaritans and the Mental Health Foundation, to ensure this law is as strong as possible.

What will the Act do?

Sadly, we know that lots of content online encourages people to engage in eating disorder behaviours, lose weight or overexercise. This is incredibly dangerous as it can worsen an eating disorder if somebody is already unwell or contribute to an eating disorder developing for the first time if the person is already vulnerable.

The Act means that online platforms must ensure that children are not exposed to ‘primary priority content’, which includes posts that promote eating disorders. The largest platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Tik Tok must also give adults the tools they need to ‘filter’ out this harmful content if they choose to do so.

Does social media cause eating disorders?

The relationship between social media and eating disorders is complex. Somebody wouldn’t become unwell just by looking at content online and we do hear from some people who find social media helpful. For instance, there are communities where people share recovery wins and encourage others to reach out for treatment.

However, people with eating disorders often feel that social media is exacerbating or 'fuelling the fire' of their illness. While most eating disorder content is created by people who are unwell, and they must never be punished for their posts, it’s crucial that online platforms spot and remove dangerous content as soon as possible.

How will the Act be enforced?

Ofcom is responsible for enforcing the Online Safety Act. We’ve been advising them to help increase their knowledge of eating disorder content and we’ll continue to offer a hand. We know that this law won't change the online environment overnight, but it’s a good first step to make social media a safer space for people affected by eating disorders.

Where can I find out more?

You can read more about the Act on the Parliament website.