Instagram and the Regulation of Eating Disorder Communities

By Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

I’m sure not how much time the average health law enthusiast spends on Instagram, but as a rare opportunity to see health regulation in real-time, I’d encourage logging onto the site, which curates content based on user profiles and by tags, and searching for the following tags; #thinspo, #thighgap, and #eatingdisorder. The site will either return no results, or will present the searcher with a warning message that “Posts with words or tags you’re searching for often encourage behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death” and encouraging the user to reach out for help, though the flagged content is still accessible if the user clicks-through. #thinspo (short for another neologism, ‘thinspiration’) is exactly what it sounds like – images designed to inspire an individual to restrict their diet, and exercise to attain what will generally be an underweight physique. Many social media sites have enacted similar bans on content as a reaction to the role that online communities can play in promoting eating disorders.

As a suite of illnesses, eating disorders have severe, and sometimes life-threatening medical complications. Anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of all psychiatric illnesses; bulimia carries severe medical complications associated with starvation and purging including bone disease, heart complications, digestive tract distress, and even infertility, and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) while carrying subclinical status in DMS-IV, carries similar levels of eating pathology and general psychopathology to anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder, and a similar degree of danger to physical health to anorexia. Instagram had been criticised for its inaction in the face of an explosion of pro-eating disorder community activity on its site after Tumblr and Pinterest enacted bans on ‘thinspiration’ content, at which point many users migrated to Instagram’s platform. Five years on from the initial ban, some terms, like #starve and #purge will display the above warning message; other obvious tags for the pro-eating disorder community, like #skinnyinspiration and #thinspire attract no warning message and display images of emaciated women, romanticizations of eating disorders, images of individuals destroying food, and in line with clinical understandings of how eating disorders manifest themselves, images of self harm.

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Technology and The Horrors of Child Pornography

By Michele Goodwin

A recent spate of arrests in New York emphasizes the potentially dangerous connection between technology and sex crimes.  In a landmark police bust, authorities tracked down and arrested more than seventy people in the New York City area who were trading child pornography.  Among those arrested were a rabbi, police chief, nurse, architect, and nanny.  Police infiltrated chat rooms where traffickers made available images of children engaged in sex acts with each other and adults.

What is the role of technology in the arrests and distribution of these images?  While technology helped officers track down child pornography traffickers, the internet also facilitated the trading of those harmful, illegal images of children.  On line chat rooms and other social network spaces provide for the broad-spread, easy distribution of child pornography.

Importantly, the children whose images are trafficked are re-victimized each time their images are shared, bought, and sold.  The frequency at which this can occur is intensified over electronic media, opening a horrific floodgate as demonstrated in the New York arrests where thousands of obscene, pornographic images of children were collected from dozens of confiscated laptops. Clearly, solutions to this problem must necessarily emphasize examining technology’s  unwelcome dark side.