Facebook whistleblower: Instagram influences children, teens susceptible to anorexia or extreme dieting

A former Facebook employee turned whistleblower launched a series of allegations against the social media giant during a Senate Commerce Subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

Frances Haugen, who at one time led the company's Civic Misinformation Team, says Facebook knowingly hid research on the mental health impacts of its' products on children. Both parties seem to be in agreement on tightening regulations for social media companies like Facebook. For their part, Facebook disagrees with many of Haugen's allegations and say they've done nothing wrong

Haugen's testimony is shining a light on the role social media plays in influencing young people susceptible to things like anorexia or extreme dieting. One leaked internal study cited 17% of teen girls who said Instagram, whose parent company is Facebook, makes eating disorders worse.

"Facebook knows that they are leading young users to anorexia content," Haugen said.

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Haugen claims Facebook knew Instagram was making body-image issues worse, not only failing to crack down on accounts supporting extreme dieting and eating disorders, but actively promoting them.

The normalization of eating disorders, reinforced through social media pictures and discussions, makes therapy all the more challenging for those seeking help at Turning Point of Tampa.

"There are groups that give you tips on how to restrict or skip meals and they're targeted towards teenagers and young people," said Jon Jasper, Eating Disorder Therapist at Turning Point of Tampa. "There are also Facebook groups created that enable and support eating disorder behavior."

"We're perpetuating the distorted image," Jasper said. "We're reinforcing the broken eyes that an eating disorder person will already have."

Jasper notes that social media and athletics are two major risk factors for eating disorders. And though the fastest growing population is college-aged men, it can start much younger.

"80% of 10-year-olds are worried that they are fat, which is pretty alarming when you hear that number," Jasper said. "53% of 13-year-old girls are concerned about their bodies and that goes up to 78% of girls by the time they're 17."

McCall Dempsey experienced an eating disorder for 15 years.

"I struggled in silence," Dempsey said. "When I was struggling in high school, it was just billboards and magazines and now, we have all these other things."

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Through her recovery, she founded "Southern Smash" to empower those fighting their own battles. With social media now under the microscope, she encourages parents to teach kids when to unfollow or log off completely.

"It's continuing to be that critical consumer," Dempsey said. "That's what's really, really, really important because we can't shield our eyes, we can't shield our kids from it, and so it's teaching them how to use those tools themselves."

A spokesperson for Facebook said they will "continue to follow expert advice from academics and mental health organizations, like the National Eating Disorder Association, to strike the difficult balance between allowing people to share their mental health experiences while protecting them from potentially harmful content."

McCall encourages anything struggling with an eating disorder to reach out for help. The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness hosts free, weekly, therapist-led virtual support groups. You can learn more at allianceforeatingdisorders.com. You can also search through plenty of local resources at findhelp.com.