Major Win for Smart Screen Time

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Facebook and Instagram told The Telegraph newspaper earlier this month that they would ban images that promote or glamorize eating disorders, particularly photos that promote self-harm. 

The social media giant issued a statement in February saying it had consulted experts about online safety and self-harm. “First, these experts unanimously reaffirmed that Facebook should allow people to share admissions of self-harm and suicidal thoughts, but should not allow people to share content promoting it.” 

Teens turn to social media and the Internet for fun things to entertain themselves with, but they also go there when they are struggling emotionally and looking for help. Vulnerable teens are the ones I’m most concerned about; there is plenty of harmful information lurking out there. This is particularly true when it comes to eating disorders.

There are threads on Facebook and its sister platform Instagram that actually encourage girls to lose weight by fasting together, or by emulating the glamorous, stick-thin models who serve as role models. They share photos of their concave stomachs, thigh gaps, and protruding ribs. I was disturbed to learn of the phrase “Thinspiration” -- taking a problematic way of thinking and turning into a positive idea -- clever and sadly so dangerous.

Social feeds known as pro-ana (pro-anorexia) and pro-mia (pro-bulimia) really are concerning. Eating disorders, from mild to life-threatening, impact all ages and genders. There is so much suffering for people dealing with anorexia,  bulimia and binge-eating disorder, and so much pain as family members trying to help and often feeling completely lost on what to do.

Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert and assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, says those who follow the pro-skinny content on Facebook and Instagram get around the algorithms that weed out disturbing images by using obscure hashtags such as #proana, #skinny or #fasting. Some pages that glamorize eating disorders are private and tell followers to contact them directly to get access.

I was speaking this week with a therapist who specializes in eating disorders and asking what the latest explanatory model that experts are talking about in terms of eating disorders is. There have been times when an anxiety/control model was central, times when an addiction model was the answer, and so on. She said that the latest discussion is about problems with brain pathways and that they see problems in the brain’s reward center.  The good news is that many people are doing research in this area and there are many working to get more trained therapists in this line of work—believe me, it is so needed. 

For this Tech Talk Tuesday, I want to emphasize how important it is to encourage healthy eating in your home, as well as talking to your teen about what might cause an eating disorder. Though girls are three times as likely to have an eating disorder, it’s important to include your sons in this conversation. Remember, this is a talk that should be done without accusations or blame. You’re curious — and wonder if they are too. The problem is so rampant on Instagram that they have actually created a pretty good resource page in their privacy and safety center on eating disorders.

Here are some questions to get the conversation started: 

  • Ask your kids if they have any friends who might have an eating disorder. 

  • What is the peer pressure like out there to be thin, or if a boy, muscular?

  • Are there too many media messages that promote unreasonable body types?

  • Why is our culture so demanding on girls, in particular, to be skinny? In much of the world — Africa and the Middle East, for example — curvy figures are prized.

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