TikTok's algorithm wants you to see as many videos as possible, regardless of how damaging or dangerous they might be, Chloe Keedy reports in this special ITV News investigation
"I just want to get thin so people can tell."
"I just usually ask myself would you rather eat… or be skinny?"
"Try to think of eating as little as possible rather than setting a goal."
These are just some of the twisted tips we found being shared on social media app TikTok.
Known as ‘thinspiration’ - these posts are designed to make the person reading them want to lose weight.
Content that promotes disordered eating and dangerous weight loss is supposed to be banned on TikTok, but we found it being shared widely by accounts with names such as ‘ihatecalories’ and ‘wanabethin’.
Anyone can view or follow these accounts. Posts range from those detailing "what I eat in a day" - which is frequently dangerously few calories - to those asking their followers questions like "can you guys drop tips to throw up?"
20-year-old Francesca Moufarrige and 19-year-old Elsie MacGregor met in an eating disorder recovery clinic last year. They love using TikTok to watch and share videos with their friends and followers, but say that the app’s darker side repeatedly dragged them back to the depths of the illness they were trying to recover from.
"When I was ill, I was looking at these videos as a way of staying unwell," Elsie told me.
"When I wanted to get better, and these videos were encouraging eating such small amounts of food… eating disorders are very competitive by nature.
"So for me the first thing I would think is, ‘I’m not ill enough. I want to look like that. I shouldn’t be getting better.’”
Francesca said TikTok was the "perfect" place to go when she was feeling a bit vulnerable.
"The hashtags, you can click on them and then you can just see all the videos. It was very easy to find - it wasn’t like I was going out of my way," she said.
Both Elsie and Francesca say avoiding this content became even more difficult during lockdown.
"I had nothing else to do - that’s what you spent your time looking at," Elsie said.
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Both say it enhanced their sense of isolation but, in reality, they were far from alone.
We surveyed more than 1,000 TikTok users with experience of an eating disorder and asked them what impact, if any, using the app had on their recovery. The results were stark.
82% said TikTok has had a negative impact on their mental health. A quarter said it has had a major negative impact.
80% of people we surveyed told us that TikTok has had a negative impact on their recovery from an eating disorder. 26% said it has had a major negative impact.
88% said their relationship with TikTok has become unhealthier as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
93% said TikTok does not do enough to protect users from harmful content.
Both Elsie and Francesca say that they complain regularly to TikTok about videos that they find triggering, sometimes as many as 20 times per day, but almost always get the same response.
"Every time I would get a notification saying it was being reviewed, then a notification saying this doesn’t violate the community guidelines," said Elsie.
"It doesn’t make sense that it could come back that quickly."
TikTok’s current guidelines state that "content that promotes unhealthy eating behaviours or habits that are likely to cause adverse health outcomes is not allowed on the platform.
"This includes content expressing desire for an eating disorder, sharing tips or coaching on disordered eating, and participation in unhealthy body measurement challenges."
We decided to investigate this ourselves. We put in 100 complaints about 100 different videos that appear to violate TikTok’s community guidelines.
In 92 cases, TikTok responded to say the video didn’t violate its guidelines. Almost always within a matter of a few minutes. Only eight were found to be in violation, and TikTok told us it had taken them down. But when we checked, three of them were still up on the site.
We showed all of these videos to registered dietician Marcela Fiuza, including the many that promote extreme low calorie diets.
"That’s horrendous - not even a toddler would survive on 500 calories a day," Marcela told me.
Basically, such a diet would send your body into starvation mode.
"It would be good to understand what criteria they are using for their guidelines or unhealthy eating… because it’s a concern."
In response to ITV News' investigation, TikTok said: "At TikTok, we aim to approach eating disorder content with compassion for those affected, who may come to our platform seeking community, while strictly removing content depicting, promoting, normalising or glorifying disordered eating.
"This is an incredibly nuanced area that's difficult to consistently get right, and we're working to improve our policies and enforcement strategies, and to train our teams to remain alert to a broader scope of content."
We showed our findings to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who told us TikTok should be doing more to protect people. As we spoke, she scrolled through some of the videos that TikTok had told us were not in violation of their guidelines.
Pausing on one, she said: "How a social media platform thinks that that is not harmful is beyond me. They will need to make some very different judgment calls about what they allow and what they don’t."
She said the government’s new Online Safety Bill will make social media platforms do more.
Under the new legislation, the regulator Ofcom will have the power to fine companies failing to comply with the laws and block non-compliant sites.
Elsie says change can’t come soon enough.
She added: "If someone sees one video, that could be it for some people. That could be the difference between life and death."
Where to seek help if you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder: