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Social media needs to halt rising youth eating disorder rates – expert panel

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A roundtable, featuring experts and eating disorder survivors, has recommended removing beauty filters on social media for young people.
An expert panel has handed down several proposals aimed at reducing eating disorder rates in young people, including tougher social media regulations.

An expert panel has handed down several proposals aimed at reducing eating disorder rates in young people, including tougher social media regulations.

It comes after eating disorder survivors and support advocates met with politicians and social media representatives in Parliament last year.

The Federal Government will now consider a list of 21 recommendations from the expert review’s findings.

More than 1.1 million Australians are currently living with an eating disorder, according to the Butterfly Foundation.

Background

A 2023 survey of 3,000 Australians aged 12 to 18 by the Butterfly Foundation found over 60% felt social media had negatively impacted their body image.

The eating disorder charity also found an 86% rise in eating disorders among young people between 2012-2023.

A person with a diagnosed eating disorder is 322% more likely to be served dieting content on TikTok, compared to a person without an eating disorder, according to the University of Melbourne.

Independent MP Zoe Daniel called eating disorders the “most deadly of all mental illnesses”.

Roundtable

Daniel launched a ‘roundtable’ with the Butterfly Foundation in September 2023.

Talks between lawmakers, advocates, and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, focused on the relationship between social media, young people, and body image issues.

Youth mental health advocate Varsha Yajman was part of the roundtable. She told TDA that TikTok’s absence from talks was “concerning,” considering how many users it has, and its role in “perpetuating” body image issues.

Recommendations

The roundtable developed 21 recommendations spanning five key areas including legislative reform and changes targeted at social media algorithms. Meta representatives did not contribute to the recommendations because it would be a “conflict of interest”.

One proposal included giving Australian authorities more powers to demand social media platforms remove pro-eating disorder content.

The roundtable experts defined this as any content that glorifies or encourages eating disorders or extreme weight loss.

The roundtable also recommended functions on social media platforms to allow users to filter harmful material out of their social media feeds, like content about weight loss trends or diet challenges.

Platforms would also be required to improve the diversity of the size, race, gender and ability of bodies in content users see.

One recommendation was that social media companies share their data with researchers, and offer financial support to develop knowledge around body image.

Young users

The panel made several proposals specifically targeting users under 18.

This includes calls to restrict young people’s access to ‘beauty filters’ that edit users’ appearance, including their hair, face shape and complexion.

Experts also recommended age verification regulations to restrict young people from opening a social media account.

Zoe Daniel will now present the panel’s findings to Federal Government Ministers. She told TDA “there’s a massive amount at stake.”

Response

Daniel told TDA she’s concerned about how “endemic” body dissatisfaction has become among younger people, and urged immediate intervention.

Federal Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said she welcomed the expert roundtable’s recommendations, and that the Government wants to reduce the harm caused by social media.

Rowland said the Government is currently reviewing the Online Safety Act, including looking at how to address body image.

Yajman said she wishes she could have diversified her social media algorithm at the peak of her eating disorder.

She said algorithms can make young people feel like they “can’t escape” from diet-related content.

“It’s really important that we’re holding people accountable who actually have the authority and power to do something”.

The Butterfly Foundation:

1800 ED HOPE

1800 33 4673

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