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Eating Disorder Awareness Week: The Dangers Of TikTok’s ‘What I Eat In A Day’ Videos

by : Saman Javed on : 07 Mar 2021 17:30
Eating Disorder Awareness Week: The Dangers Of TikTok's 'What I Eat In A Day' VideosPixabay/TikTok

It is estimated that 1.25 million people are suffering from an eating disorder in the UK. Like all mental illnesses, eating disorders are complex and each person’s experience is different.  

In December 2020, TikTok launched an investigation and banned certain search terms after The Guardian revealed the platform was rife with pro-eating disorder content.

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While TikTok is working hard to ensure users cannot go searching for potentially harmful content, the app’s algorithm and ‘For You Page’ pose a more complex problem.

A popular trend on the app is the ‘What I Eat In A Day’ video, in which users can share their daily food intakes in less than 60 seconds.

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One study, which looked at the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on eating disorder risk and symptoms, was published in the National Center for Biotechnology Communication in June 2020, and noted that the use of social media is associated with an increased risk for disordered eating, particularly through exposure to body ideals and diet culture.

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Due to social distancing restrictions over the past year, the use of social media has increased, which in turn has heightened the risk of disordered eating, researchers suggest.

‘There’s lots of different factors at play here, not least of all a global pandemic and year of uncertainty, isolation and fear. One of the exacerbating factors is media effects,’ explained Stephanie Radford, a disordered eating and body image counsellor at NIWE Eating Distress Service.

‘People are increasingly relying on social media for entertainment and human contact, and to be confronted by such distressing message can create an environment where restriction, bingeing or purging behaviours can emerge and start to take hold,’ she adds.

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An overwhelming number of ‘What I Eat In A Day’ videos show users counting calories, eating in calorie deficits, and restricting food groups. Whether subtle or extremely overt, Radford says videos like this can perpetuate the misguided idea that people should eat the same things or number of calories each day.

‘It brings another dangerous level of competitiveness to the fore – something already found in restrictive eating disorders. Every human has different needs, that are dependent on so many different things, not least tiredness, stress and genetics,’ she says.

She explains, ‘Giving firm numbers such as calorie counts to aim for often seeps into the mind as a ‘fact’ or a ‘target’ – we crave certainty in an uncertain world! Carbs and fats are often demonised in these sorts of videos – both of which are essential for your body and brain to work properly.’

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‘Calorie restriction often leads to changes in personality, behaviour and thought patterns, and can lead to obsessive thoughts around food,’ Radford adds.

This element of control is also highlighted by Gemma Oaten, an actor and charity manager at SEED Eating Disorder Support Services. She says that in many people, an eating disorder comes from the need to try and regain control of something that they don’t have control over.

The problem with regulating ‘What I Eat In A Day’ videos is that there is no ill-intention behind them, and most people posting this kind of content will be unaware of the impact it could have.

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‘I always advocate that any disorder isn’t prompted by an image. However, we can’t deny that we’re in a day and age where the pressures of image are around us all the time,’ Oaten says.

She adds, ‘We’ve lost the narrative of what food is there for. Food is there to be enjoyed; it is an essential part of living. Everybody talks about calorie content, fat content, what’s ‘good food’ and what’s ‘bad food’.’

Oaten, who suffered from an eating disorder for more than 10 years and has since recovered, says the only days where she was asked to keep a food diary and count calories were during her time in an eating disorder unit.

‘Now this is becoming the norm. That’s scary for me. It didn’t help me then, and now it’s a part of everyday life. For someone suffering from an eating disorder, it can often feel like they are a prisoner in their own mind, consumed with thoughts of food,’ Oaten explains.

‘The food is the symptom, It’s not the cause,’ she says. ‘It’s what is on their mind 24/7. And they never get away from it. And now all of a sudden, it’s there 24/7 [on social media].’

It is important to stress that eating disorders have complex causes, and social media is unlikely to be the sole cause of someone developing one.

In a statement to UNILAD, a TikTok spokesperson said the platform’s community guidelines do not allow any content that depicts, promotes, normalises or glorifies eating disorders.

‘The safety and wellbeing of our community is a top priority. If someone tries to search for content related to eating disorders, we do not show results in search. Instead, we direct users to the Beat helpline and provide them with helpful and appropriate advice,’ the spokesperson said. Beat is the UK’s leading eating disorder charity.

In addition, the platform has introduced permanent public service announcements on hashtags such as #whatieatinaday with the aim of ‘driving awareness or fostering support around recovery and those affected by eating disorders’.

While TikTok is undeniably awash with triggering content, it has also provided a space for positive recovery communities. An example of this is the community of users who were previously unwell sharing their stories of recovery.

‘We would encourage those making positive videos to avoid mentioning specific weights or BMI, or showing photos of themselves when unwell, as although these are well-intended they can be triggering for people currently ill,’ Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at Beat, says.

Quinn said that while the charity appreciates the steps TikTok has taken to protect vulnerable users, there is still work to be done.

Although certain search terms have been removed by the platform, there are many videos that still fall through the threshold.

‘There is also no option to report something as promoting or certainly publicising dangerous disordered eating – only suicide, self-harm, and ‘dangerous acts’ or ‘other’,’ Radford notes.

Oaten agrees, saying, ‘These platforms have a duty of care to make sure that they are watching, because at the moment it feels like nobody is, especially on TikTok.

‘TikTok has an outreach of millions. And with that, it needs to really make sure that it’s got an understanding of what could be a trigger and what might not be deemed to be the most responsible of content.

‘But that’s where the duty of care and the education comes into it. Whether it be to encourage followers to report more, or a dedicated team to look at content, they need to do what is essential for people’s well-being and mental health,’ Oaten says.

One helpful tip put forward by Radford for those who find themselves being influenced by content online and applying unrealistic, dangerous standards to their day-to-day lives is to ask yourself, ‘Would I want my friend, younger sibling or partner to follow this advice, and live like this? Would I tell them to do this?’

‘Reframing your expectations of yourself versus what you would want another person to do can be really helpful – it can bring into focus that you would probably never want another person to force themselves to ignore their hunger or shame themselves for their body – and your life and happiness are worth just as much as theirs are, I promise,’ she says.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this article and would like to speak with someone in confidence, call the BEAT Eating Disorders helpline on 0808 801 0677. Helplines are open 365 days a year from 9am–8pm during the week, and 4pm–8pm on weekends and bank holidays. Alternatively, you can try the one-to-one webchat.

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Topics: Featured, Eating Disorder, Now, Social Media, TikTok