Instagram says it has fixed a bug that caused users with eating disorders to be automatically recommended posts for potentially harmful diets. The company apologizes.


A new search function that, like that, provided search terms via AI, appears to recommend a variety of diets and potentially harmful weight loss practices to users with an eating disorder. For example, the search function would automatically recommend terms like “appetite suppressant” and “fasting,” something that is not helpful for people who are already struggling with their self-image. According to a spokesperson for Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, that was a mistake.

“We recently rolled out a new search function on Instagram that goes beyond hashtags and usernames and allows you to discover content you are interested in,” he told British broadcaster BBC. “As part of that new feature, you can tap the search bar and get suggestions for topics you might want to look up.”

Therefore, the proposed topics include ‘appetite suppressants’ and other practices that may be harmful to health. The spokesperson reports that the problem has now been resolved and that the search terms have been deleted.

As an optical network that mainly appeals to a younger audience, Instagram has long faced criticism that the app is terrible for mental health, especially its users’ self-image. A complete feed of glamorous, often unrealistically handsome people can take its toll, researchers say. To counter this, Instagram applies small tricks, such as hiding likes. The network was also previously forced to ban images of self-mutilation following the suicide of a British girl.

In the same vein, Instagram has also banned the advertising of diet products to minors for some time, and posts that promote ‘eating disorders are also prohibited. This concerns, for example, photos of highly skinny women who serve as inspiration or ‘thinspo’ for girls with anorexia.

The broader diet posts on counting calories and all kinds of fitness and weight loss plans are allowed if Instagram thinks they support a healthy lifestyle. However, the line between the two is skinny, something that becomes clear when the algorithm automatically starts proposing diet solutions in a search bar.

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