Parents sue Instagram for daughters’ anorexia and suicide

The devastating impact Instagram is having on young girls is laid bare today in shocking photos which show the rapid deterioration of two once happy pre-teen girls who became obsessed with dieting and eventually tried to kill themselves as an apparent result of what they saw on the app. 

Kentucky mothers Candace Wuest and Jennifer Martin are suing Instagram’s parent company Meta in separate lawsuits filed on Monday. They claim the app targeted their daughters – and millions of other vulnerable girls – with calorie-restrictive recipes, photos of skeletal models and a fatal algorithm which pushed both to the top of the girls’ feeds. 

In Wuest’s daughter’s case, she tried to take her own life after writing in letters about the crippling societal pressure to be thin and beautiful. Alex, Jennifer’s daughter, tried to kill herself after relapsing several times. 

The families’ complaints are not the first of their kind but they compound the widely-held belief that Instagram is detrimental to young people at the most crucial stage of their adolescence. 

Since June, 12 lawsuits have been filed against Meta alleging similar harm. None have yet been settled.

They come as the result of bombshell internal papers that last year revealed Meta knew about the harm it was causing among young people.

It has failed to adjust its algorithm since then and has failed to adequately address the problem despite making minor changes like adding time prompts and resource information for people with eating disorders or suicidal thoughts to some posts. 

The Wuest family sought treatment for their daughter in 2018. She is shown above with her younger brother in a photo supplied by the family in their lawsuit

This 12-year-old girl from Kentucky, named in court documents as CN, became obsessed with calorie-restricting diets on Instagram. She lost a startling amount of weight in a single year, then tried to kill herself. She is shown, left, aged 12 when she started using the app and right, a year later, in a children’s hospital being treated for anorexia 

Wuest’s daughter is named only as CN in the lawsuit.  It describes how she and her daughter started scouring Instagram together for recipes in 2017, when CN was 12. 

‘At first, CN used Instagram to communicate with her mom and find recipes. She frequently messaged Candace recipes for exciting new foods—usually sweets—which they would often make together. CN loved looking for new recipes.

 Her daughter’s Instagram page then became flooded with images of excessively thin models, focusing on thigh gaps, bridge gaps, and clavicle bones

‘After a while, however, she stopped sending recipes and became preoccupied with the idea that she needed to be slender. 

‘By sixth grade, the recipes stopped entirely,’ the lawsuit says. 

Soon, the 12-year-old was in groups where people would share tips on avoiding eating. 

Her daughter’s Instagram page then became ‘flooded with images of excessively thin models, focusing on thigh gaps, bridge gaps, and clavicle bones.’ 

‘These are not terms CN searched for but, rather, content Meta’s recommendation system sent to her. 

‘CN would open her Explore page and the content was simply there, in mind blowing volumes,’ the lawsuit claims. 

In April 2018, CN’s periods stopped. She kept it from her mother, but told the Instagram community she had become part of. They congratulated her, telling her she was doing ‘something right’. 

One of the diets that the first girl put herself on in 2017, after being targeted with recipes

The girl illustrated her eating disorder as a sinister, skeleton-like demon with its arms around her at meal times

One of the diets that the first girl put herself on in 2017, after being targeted with recipes 

While in the throes of the eating disorder, the Wuests' daughter wrote this saddening note about how society made her feel a crippling need to be thin

While in the throes of the eating disorder, the Wuests’ daughter wrote this saddening note about how society made her feel a crippling need to be thin 

Later that year, CN was shopping with her mother and nearly fainted. 

When they went for dinner, she was ‘panicked’ that her mother had chosen a restaurant that did not display the calorie count of each meal on its menu. 

The child depicted the pressure she felt to stay thin in drawings like this one

The child depicted the pressure she felt to stay thin in drawings like this one 

The family sought treatment for her, but over the next four years CN attempted suicide twice. 

She was hospitalized multiple times and forced onto a feeding tube. 

Desperate to find her daughter help, Wuest took to Facebook support groups. 

In one post, she said: ‘I believe she is getting up at 4am and going to the basement to exercise. She has completely mastered keeping herself just above hospital weight. 

‘I have decided that if she does not make significant improvement by her appointments on Wednesday, I will consider sending her to a treatment facility and using her college savings plan to do it. I do not want her to struggle for the rest of her life and I do not want this to ruin the rest of her life.’ 

At the start of the seventh, when she was 12, CN joined her school’s swim team. 

Her mother describes how she thought swimming would burn most calories, which was why she chose it as a sport.  

When the swimming season stopped, she turned to Instagram for tips on how to keep the weight off. 

Now 17, CN’s mother says she struggles to focus on basic tasks and has only just begun feeing herself properly. 

‘Over the last four years, Cn and Candace Wuest have survived 10 hospitalizations, including one residential stay and two active suicide attempts because of Instagram’s inherently harmful and dangerous social media product.

Alex Martin, another girl from Kentucky, became so obsessed with being thin that she lost 20lbs in three months

Alex Martin, another girl from Kentucky, became so obsessed with being thin that she lost 20lbs in three months

Alex Martin, another girl from Kentucky, became so obsessed with being thin that she lost 20lbs in three months. She is shown, right, at her lightest, after using Instagram for three months 

‘During her multiple hospitalizations, she had to be ‘tubed’ multiple times. She refused to eat to the point where a feeding tube was necessary. 

CN's mother vented on Facebook and looked for help from other mothers

CN’s mother vented on Facebook and looked for help from other mothers 

‘And when she tried to eat, CN felt so much anxiety and guilt that she would engage in self-harm. 

‘To this day, her arms, stomach, legs and ankles are scarred with those markings of suicidal ideation and self-injury.

‘Her honor roll status and dreams for her future became a distant memory. Her eating disorder resulted in significant loss of muscle and parts of her brain.

‘It was not until very recently that CN got back to the point where she could be trusted to feed herself, that is, her mother will ask her to go get a meal and she will.’ 

They are seeking unspecified damages from a jury trial. 

Alexandra’s parents claim she was perfectly happy with her figure until she started using the app, but that she quickly shed 20lbs after having images of statuesque models shoved in front of her every day.

‘Alex got her first cell phone when she was 12, as she started riding the bus and her parents wanted to make sure that she had a way to contact them. Instagram was the first app she downloaded onto her new phone, and she was very excited about opening an account as all her friends had done. In 2014 and 2015, everything seemed to be OK. She was still a star student and enjoyed school. 

Alex Martin also received help and is at a healthier weight. She is shown with her family

Alex Martin also received help and is at a healthier weight. She is shown with her family 

Meta received this research in 2020 which showed how toxic Instagram is for young girls, but they continued to add beauty-editing filters to the app, despite six per cent of suicidal girls in America blaming it for their desire to kill themselves

Meta received this research in 2020 which showed how toxic Instagram is for young girls, but they continued to add beauty-editing filters to the app, despite six per cent of suicidal girls in America blaming it for their desire to kill themselves 

META KNOWS ITS APPS ARE HARMFUL TO YOUNG GIRLS

Meta knows Instagram is toxic for young girls and has done for at two years but continues to add beauty-editing filters to the app, despite 6 percent of suicidal girls in America blaming it for their desire to kill themselves.

Leaked research obtained by The Wall Street Journal and published last September reveals that since at least 2019, Facebook has been warned that Instagram harms young girls’ body image.

One message posted on an internal message board in March 2020 said the app revealed that 32 percent of girls said Instagram made them feel worse about their bodies if they were already having insecurities.

Another slide, from a 2019 presentation, said: ‘We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.

‘Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.’

Another presentation found that among teens who felt suicidal, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced their suicidal feelings to Instagram.

But the company has not taken any drastic steps to change its algorithm since then, to the dismay of parents around the world. 

It has time prompts in place to tell users when they are spending too long on the app, and also deletes known anorexia or self-harm groups but only once it becomes aware of them. 

‘However, she also started sneaking out at night to get her cell phone.’ 

By 2016, she had multiple accounts on the app and ‘was exposed to massive amounts of eating disorder and unhealthy content’.

She began receiving recommendations from ‘pro-ana’ groups (the term given to groups that promote anorexia). 

‘Alex started by eating healthier, then eating less and exercising more, fueled on by the images that Meta’s algorithm bombarded her with in the Feed, Stories and Explore.

‘She began thinking that she wasn’t good enough, and that she needed to look like the models she saw on Instagram.’

She also became ‘depressed’ every time she posted her own photos, worried that not enough of her friends would ‘like’ them. 

In the fall of 2016, she started to withdraw. ‘She went through phases of depression and her exercise routine became more and more extreme. 

‘At the same time, she started to eat less, which is when her parents realized something was going on.

‘Alex would make up that she had eaten that day, so her parents didn’t worry. 

‘She would take food out of wrappers and hide the food at the bottom of the garbage can, while putting the empty wrappers at the top. She would pretend to eat dinner with her family, but then spit into her napkin and feed it to the family’s dogs.’

‘By November, she was noticeably thinner. She went from about 110 pounds in mid 2016 to under 100 in November.

The next month, she lost more than another ten pounds. Her mother and father took her to the emergency room, where she was told her resting heart rate was in the 20s.

‘Doctors told her parents that her heart was failing.’ 

She spent 21 days in the hospital, during which time she was diagnosed with anorexia.

Despite seeking treatment, she continued to refuse to eat. ‘No matter how hard she tried, she could not stop comparing herself to the images Instagram’s algorithm promoted, applied, and bombarded her with, which she had come to think of as the norm and the way she was supposed to look.’

Her parents sent her to a facility in North Carolina to seek treatment. She began to improve and in May 2017, she transitioned to outpatient care. Her parents rented an apartment to be near to her.

Desperate to overcome her eating disorder, she deleted the app but reinstalled out of fear that ‘no one would know who she was’ without it.

She then opened a ‘recovery’ account. But her parents say she was targeted with the same harmful images and recommendations she had been exposed to before.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen who testified before a Senate subcommittee about the harmful effects of Instagram

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen who testified before a Senate subcommittee about the harmful effects of Instagram 

In May 2019, she attempted suicide by overdosing on pills. She was hospitalized for ten days then transferred to a psychiatric ward.

She attempted suicide a second time in November this year. By 2020, she ‘relapsed’ and became bulimic. 

Their allegations against Instagram compound the widely-held view that the app is harming young girls’ health. 

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen admitted as much last year, testifying before a Senate subcommittee about the harmful effects of the company on young people. 

But the social media giant has not changed its algorithm to deter young girls from such problems. 

This week, it is under fire for being too forceful in pushing content it thinks users will enjoy, rather than showing them the chronological posts of their chosen followers. 

If you or anyone you know is impacted by an eating disorders, contact the National Eating Disorder Helpline, found here.