There is no shortage of people on the internet trying to exploit and manipulate the weak among us. One such group are anorexia coaches or “anacoaches”.
They are typically middle-aged male sex offenders who go online to find impressionable young people to exploit under the guise of “weight loss coaching.”
I did some research on how anacoaches work. I have found that they are made easier by flaws in social media algorithms, as well as large numbers of young people seeking weight loss help online.
My ongoing research, along with other media reports, shows that the opportunities for anacoaches have increased in recent years. My analysis has shown that on Twitter alone there are around 300 unique requests for anacoaches around the world every day.
Anacoaches operate on numerous channels, including established social platforms such as Twitter, TikTok, Tumblr, and Kik. Even so, these platforms did not address the problem.
Address young people
An estimated 4% of Australians, or around a million people, have eating disorders. And almost two thirds (63%) of these people are female.
Teenagers with eating disorders are more likely to experience poor mental health and impaired social function – making them more susceptible to the influence of anacoaches.
Research has also shown that social media use can increase the extent to which teenagers and young adults chase a “thin” ideal.
A study of the predatory behavior of anacoaches published by a Dutch human rights group found that victims who report themselves were sexually abused and even raped.
And with anacoaching comes the potential for other forms of criminal abuse, such as pedophilia, forced prostitution, and even human trafficking.
Read more: The virtual door to online sexual care for children is wide open
The platform offers social media
With the advent of online platforms, communities have emerged that pursue a thin ideal. These networks tend to share content advocating extreme thinness.
Group identity is formed through interactions and hashtag sharing, with a focus on terms that are regularly used in connection with eating disorders. Common hashtags are #proana (pro-anorexia), #bonespo (bone inspiration), #edtw (eating disorder warning), #promia (pro bulimia), #bulimie, #thighgap, #uw (ultimate weight), #cw (current weight), #gw (target weight) and #tw (trigger warning).
As highlighted in my previous research, communication in these communities includes sharing weight loss tips, diet plans, extreme exercise plans, thin body pictures, and emotional “support”.
Anacoaches lurk in chat forums that focus on thin ideals. Each coach is usually present in numerous chat rooms and lures teenagers with stories about their previous “successes” from coaching.
They market themselves with dubious claims. Some will assign themselves labels like “strict coach” or “common coach”. The following screenshots show messages published in the Kik app.
The coaching mainly involves sharing pictures and videos for nude body checks (or in underwear), weekly weighing, and enforcing strict rules on what foods to eat and avoid.
Although there is currently no way of knowing how long a coaching lasts on average, the damage is far-reaching. Because of the way its content algorithms work, TikTok, which has a huge young following, will begin recommending user accounts that focus on eating disorders as soon as such content is sought.
What is being done?
There are currently insufficient regulations from platforms to prevent anacoaches from operating, despite a number of reports highlighting the problem.
So far, Instagram, TikTok and Pinterest have tried to filter out selected words such as “proana” or “thinspo” and to prohibit searches for content that promotes extreme thinness.
A TikTok spokesperson told The Conversation that the platform does not allow content that depicts, promotes, or glorifies eating disorders.
“When a user searches for terms related to eating disorders, we don’t return any results, but instead forward them to the Butterfly Foundation for helpful and appropriate advice. We have also introduced permanent public notices (PSAs) on related hashtags to support our community, ”the spokesman said.
The spokesman said accounts found to be sexual harassment could be blocked. Platforms will block users if they violate user guidelines, but anacoaches often reappear under a new account name.
According to Twitter, bypassing account locks is against the rules. Earlier this year, Twitter announced that it would enable a security mode that would allow users to enable proactive checking of spam and abusive content. It remains to be seen what role this will play in containing targeted attacks by anacoaches.
A research-based report published this month by the 5Rights Foundation details how minors are attacked with sexual and suicidal content online. It points to platforms like Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Discord, Twitch, Yubo, YouTube and Omegle.
The research found that children under the age of 13 are directly attacked with malicious content on the Internet within 24 hours of creating an online account.
You may receive unwanted messages from adults who offer pornography, as well as recommendations about content related to eating disorders, extreme diets, self-harm, suicide, and sexualized or distorted body images.
Australia’s platform guidelines need to be revised to ensure platforms adhere to community guidelines and are held accountable for violations.
The government should prescribe rules posted by the eSafety bureau on how vulnerable youth should be helped online.
A differentiated approach to intervention would produce better results for users with eating disorders because each user would have different circumstances and mental health status.
Anacoaches on social media should be viewed and treated like criminals. And platforms that fail to do so should be fined for failing to provide a safe user environment for the weak.
In the past, the European Union fined platforms for allowing terrorist content. Social media giants have also hired contract workers to review content for examples of terrorism, pedophilia and abuse. These efforts should be extended to anacoaches.
The Conversation reached out to Tumblr for a comment but received no replies within the deadline. The popular messaging app Kik was acquired by MediaLab in 2019. The Conversation reached out to MediaLab for comment but received no response within the allotted time frame.