July 20, 2021 – Algorithms are pushing teenage girls who even briefly engage with fitness-related images towards a flood of weight-loss content, according to new research which aimed to recreate the experience of being a child on social networks.

Researchers adopting “mystery shopper” techniques set up a series of Instagram profiles mirroring real children and followed the same accounts as the volunteer teenagers. They then began liking a handful of posts to see how quickly the network’s algorithm pushed potentially damaging material into the site’s “explore” tab, which highlights material that the social network thinks a user might like.

One account that was set up in the name of a 17-year-old girl liked a single post from a sportswear brand about dieting that appeared in her Instagram explore tab. She then followed an account which was suggested to her after it posted a photo of a “pre- and post-weight loss journey”.

These two actions were enough to radically change the material suggested to the fake teenage girl on Instagram. The researchers found her explore feed suddenly began to feature substantially more content relating to weight loss journeys and tips, exercise and body sculpting. The material often featured “noticeably slim, and in some cases seemingly edited/distorted body shapes”.

When the experiment – which involved browsing the site for just a few minutes a day – was recreated with a profile posing as a 15-year-old girl, a similar effect quickly took place.

Researchers also replicated the behaviour of a real 14-year-old boy which led to his Instagram explore tab being flooded with pictures of models, many of which appeared to have heavily edited body types.


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