Bullying, eating disorders and death, the dark side of a decade of Instagram


It all started 10 years ago today with a photo of an adorable golden-haired dog staring gooey-eyed into the camera.   

But while our love for anything on social media that involves cute pups may not have waned over the last decade, our relationship with one of its biggest and most influential giants has been far from plain sailing.

Within two years of launching on October 6, 2010, Instagram garnered 30 million active monthly users. Today, the app boasts over a billion – and more than 50 billion total photos uploaded with over 100 million posts every single day.

But along with the instant communities and introduction of countless filters that we never knew we needed, the social media site has also become a hotbed for darker content.

Now it’s also home to countless pro-anorexia and self-harm accounts, and has become a place where direct messages containing bullying and sexual harassment often go unchecked.

Seven years after launching, Instagram was dubbed the most dangerous social media site after a survey of almost 1,500 14 to 24-year-olds revealed that the platform had a serious impact on young people’s body image and contributed to bullying, anxiety and depression.

That same year, 14-year-old Molly Russell tragically took her own life days before her birthday after viewing graphic self-harm and suicide material on the site.

Molly Russell had been viewing graphic self-harm and suicide material before she took her life. (Credits: PA)

Her devastated family has since campaigned endlessly for the social media platform to take more responsibility over the content shared and has backed calls for all social media companies to share data and pay towards research into the technology’s potential harms. 

In response, in 2019, Instagram said that they had removed double the amount of material related to suicide and self-harm since the start of the year  – in total 834,000 posts – 77 per cent of which they said had not been reported by users. 

‘We aim to strike the difficult balance between allowing people to share their mental health experiences – which can be important for recovery – while also protecting others from being exposed to potentially harmful content, said Instagram boss Adam Mosseri at the time.

However in March that year, a BBC report also declared that eating disorder content on Instagram was out of control, with children swapping graphic images of weight loss and advice on how to make their illnesses more extreme. 

Within six month the site had introduced a new set of rules regarding the promotion of diet products and cosmetic surgery, with diet-related adverts of any description (including anything from detox tea’s to cosmetic procedures) only being shown to users over the age of 18.

On top of that, any products that made ‘a miraculous claim about certain diet or weight loss products, and is linked to a commercial offer such as a discount code’ were to be be banned outright.

Digital health expert Dr Rachael Kent is a Lecturer in Digital Economy & Society at Kings College and says that although the social media platform might not have been able to predict how users might abuse the site, it’s pretty naive to assume they wouldn’t. 

‘Instagram started off as a very utopic, representation of our idealised lives, bodies and landscapes,’ she explains. ‘It’s a classic case of toxic positivity, but we just didn’t know it at the time. 

‘However, it’s not as if they were the first ever social media platform to be launched. MySpace had been around for years, while Facebook was at least six years old and we’d already seen the type of damaging content that could get circulated through them. 

‘So to launch an unregulated site where anyone could share any sort of information to an ever-growing following was always going to have the potential to be incredibly dangerous and damaging. When you’re developing something like this you have a duty to ask, what’s the worst case scenario?’

When Laura Liddell joined Instagram in the early days, like most others, she used it to share her day and connect with like-minded people. But when she moved to America in 2016 to be with her now-husband, Laura saw her usage move from a hobby to an obsession.

Laura admits feeling instant relief when she deleted her Instagram account. (Picture: Laura Liddell)

‘My life soon became about getting the perfect instagram shot,’ she explains. ‘It was all a facade but in pixels. I lived the dream: traveling, modelling, trying cool food… I went to places where I didn’t feel safe or want to go and had to take multiple outfit changes everywhere we went.’

However, Laura, 28, says that striving for such an ‘Instaperfect’ life, eventually left her struggling with an eating disorder. 

‘I would post amazing food when in reality I was living off under 500 calories a day and was utterly miserable.’ she remembers. ‘One day I bought the most amazing ice cream, got the photo, then dumped it in the bin. 

‘That was when I knew I had gone too far and deleted my account.’

Laura admits that although it was a hard decision to make, the relief she felt was instant. ‘ I realised I was using it as a coping mechanism for my fears of my new surroundings instead of a place for my memories,’ she says.

‘Sometimes I will go back and look at the life “instalaura” lead and I’m horrified at myself. I do miss it from time to time, I lost a lot of connections which I knew I would, but it also helped me realise who my real friends were.

‘Deleting it was the biggest relief of my life, and not for a second did I question my decision, the positive mental health effect was so worth it.’

Having researched the impact of social media for 15 years, Dr Kent has recently noted that the coronavirus pandemic prompted yet another boost in Instagram toxic positivity and productivity. 

‘In early lockdown people were using it as a tool to capture and perform their productive output,’ she explains. ‘Whether it was to do with health and fitness, homeschooling, renovating homes or showing how you’d become an artisan baker overnight, my research revealed there was a real surge in this type of content. 

‘Suddenly our 24/7 lifestyles – especially from those who lived in big cities – had been put on hold and we needed to find other ways to showcase our productivity, which can of course turn very comparative and competitive.’

Explaining why we have such a desire to appear busy, Dr Kent explains, ‘It’s culturally ingrained in us that we have to be seen to be productive to be successful. On top of that there’s the real fear of missing out. If you’re not doing something, what are you doing?’ 

Journalist Hannah Shewan Stevens also found that the pandemic caused her to have a negative social media experience – however it was due to what she was consuming rather than posting. 

During lockdown she’d decided to use Instagram to find yoga and exercise accounts to help focus on her physical health and mental wellbeing, but after following a few new accounts her discovery page flooded with dieting and exercise tips.

Hannah received sexually explicit messages through the site. (PIcture: Hannah Shewan Stevens)

‘As I was struggling with a resurgence of disordered eating at the time, I found it hard not to go down the rabbit hole and spend many hours looking at them,’ she admits. ‘This led to a small bout of obsessive exercising, which I’d had under control for nearly a decade prior to lockdown, and I am still struggling to get my discovery page back to normal.’

This wasn’t Hannah’s first brush with the dark side of Instagram. After posting last year about some sex and relationships articles she’d written, she says, ‘I had many a dick pic sent to me and I still regularly get pervy messages from men, which I mostly find funny but it does get quite tiring after a while.

‘Following an article about reclaiming sexuality after child abuse, I received an influx of filthy, disgusting messages though, which was really distressing.’

When Penny (not her real name) made the decision to speak out on Instagram about being sexually assaulted as a teen, she admits she expected a backlash. 

‘I’d seen other people post about similar experiences and read about how empowered they felt afterwards,’ she explains. ‘My attacker was a teacher who hadn’t just done it to me, there was also a 10-year-old and 14-year-old, but as he’d never been convicted, it was always our word against his. I knew not everyone would believe me, but I underestimated the volume and violence of it and how much it would affect me.

‘When my post started circulating widely it found its way to some of his former students and I got a barrage of abusive comments and messages. I was called a liar and I could see people encouraging others to harass me as well. They even started a Whatsapp group trying to gather information on me to doxx me. This went on for almost two weeks and was so upsetting. Even so, I don’t regret writing that post.’

In August this year, Instagram addressed the problem of hate and inappropriate material in its second quarter Community Standards Enforcement report. 

Although the company declared that while their technology for identifying and removing violating content is improving, their focus would remain on ‘finding and removing this content while increasing reviewer capacity as quickly and as safely as possible.’

They added that they felt they’d made progress combating hate on their apps but, ‘we know we have more to do to ensure everyone feels comfortable using our services.’

Jenny Afia is a partner at Schillings and has worked with the Information Commissioner’s Office on the Age Appropriate Design Code: a code of practice for online services, which came into play last month. Its aim is to create a safer space for children to use social media, rather than trying to prevent them from using it. 

‘Instagram, like every other company, have 12 months to put measures in place to abide by what the code sets out and ensure underage users of its platform are protected by default (without having to opt in or out of settings) so their data cannot be collected or used by them or any other company,’ she explains. ‘If they do not, legal action can be taken against them.’ 

This means that the data of younger users should be kept private as default and not used to influence the adverts or paid for content they see such as weight loss or exercise.

‘The way children can be targeted and coerced online by companies is outrageous, and the Code means children’s online privacy is protected by default,’ adds Jenny, who explains that the introduction of the code could herald changes in the ways in which we are all targeted with unwanted content that seems to read our mind and follow us.

 ‘I’d like to see changes to the way in which Instagram targets users with specific advertising,’ she says. ‘We’ve all had that creepy experience where something we were just talking to a friend about pops up as an ad – and this needs to be addressed. This is a change that needs to happen, we need to find commercial models that don’t infringe people’s basic human right to privacy.’

Dr Kent agrees. ‘The technological commercial infrastructure and algorithms a platform like Instagram uses is incredibly intelligent,’ she says. ‘It knows what content to show you to keep you there and it knows what you want to see. It’s so easy to get pulled in by a social media site.’ 

In terms of protecting its users from harassment, bullying and dangerous sites, Dr Kent says that while the buck has to ultimately stop with the site, they also need to be encouraging users to report any accounts they are unsure of, as well as putting far more moderators in place to remove any accounts that cause concern. 

‘It’s not as if they can’t afford it,’ she adds wrly.

However, with over half a million global influencers using the site and 69% of US marketers now spend most of their budget on Instagram, one cannot deny that for all its faults, the platform is a huge success. 

‘This is because it was one of the first platforms where a general user – not a brand or celebrity – could grow in popularity and make a name for themselves with very little effort,’ explains social media expert Unsah Malik

‘When it first launched, it was a very simple concept to grasp,’ she adds. ‘All you really needed to do was upload pictures for whoever and whenever to view it.’

Since then, the site has become one of the fastest growing marketing tools, especially for young people – currently 75% of users are 18-24 and 90% are under 35. 

‘If you have a niche and create content that’s original enough for your target audience to provide a competitive advantage, you’re in the position to grow,’ explains Unsah. ‘You don’t need to be a special somebody to succeed – and contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a huge following to make an extra income either.’

This was definitely the case for author Fiona Thomas who initially built a following by talking openly about her mental health.  

90% of Fiona’s income comes from Instagram. (Picture: Amie Thomas)

‘Essentially I connected emotionally with people for years before I attempted to sell anything and this really went in my favour,’ she explains. ‘I slowly built up a level of trust through human connection, which is what I love most about Instagram.’

 Now Fiona gets 90% of her income from the site, helping businesses create their own Insta content and in turn build a following as dedicated as her 7,300 . ‘I know that’s down to the fact that I understand my audience because I interact with them directly every day,’ she explains. ‘My income varies month to month and can be anywhere between £1k-3k before tax and expenses.’

Meanwhile, for some influencers, content isn’t about financial gain. Instead, the site’s microcosm of communities is considered a place of support and sharing, with posts and pages dedicated to a myriad of fandoms, identities, genders, disabilities, races, religions and beliefs. 

Influencer Jessica Millichamp, has 68,000 followers and posts under the name of jessontheplussize.

 ‘Society had always taught me that fat was not beautiful and if you’re fat you should always aspire not to be,’ she explains. ‘But when I discovered the plus size community on Instagram I loved that it was unapologetic and I was so inspired by what I saw I decided to start my own account in the hopes of inspiring others.’

Jessica felt inspired by the plus-sized community she found on Instagram. (Picture: Jessica Millichamp)

Jessica certainly isn’t alone in her desire for ‘authentic’ content. 

In 2017, 18-year-old social media influencer Essena O’Neill blew the lid on her ‘Instaperfect’ life to her  580,000 followers, by deleting 2,000 photos from her account and renaming it: ‘Social media Is Not Real Life’.

Since then the war on fakeness and filters has continued to rage thanks to a growing body positivity movement, where influencers such as Chessie King and Vicky Pattison, have posted openly about the difference between ‘perfect’ and real photos.  

‘There’s definitely a nicer trend surfacing of people craving authentic and less “filtered” content,’ Unsah says. ‘Instagram taps into our natural human love of images.’

Jenny Afia from Schillings adds, ‘Our brains process pictures much faster than we do words. Displaying an image is a simple and effective way of communicating our supposed lifestyle and status.

‘But there’s the mental health challenges that come with consuming so many edited images of apparently perfect lives, it promotes division and unrealistic expectations. It’s not something the platform can solve itself – but we do need to take this seriously as a society and be wary of technology that is deliberately made to be addictive.’

‘The use of Instagram has changed so much since it launched,’ says Dr Kent. ‘Initially it was autobiographical, then as it was picked up by businesses it became commercial, and we, the users, turned into commodities, there to be used and abused.

‘That’s when Instagram went from cute dogs to creating a beast – and one that feels pretty uncontrollable right now.’

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