TikTok is hosting pro-anorexia content that targets children
Update (3/17/23): Following publication, it appears that TikTok restricted users’ ability to search for the majority of the terms referenced in this report. Instead of returning video results, users searching for the blocked terms are given eating disorder recovery resources, including contact information for the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) helpline.
NEDA's website, screening tool, toll-free help line, and 24/7 crisis support via text (send NEDA to 741-741) are free resources available for those who need support and treatment options.
TikTok is hosting dangerous pro-anorexia content that targets children. The company’s negligent moderation has created insulated communities of struggling young people encouraging their peers to starve themselves.
TikTok has long failed to protect its young users from content promoting disordered eating, despite claiming to prohibit “content that promotes unhealthy eating behaviors.” Most recently, TikTok raked in millions of dollars from ads promoting weight loss scams. So while TikTok continues to issue hollow promises of support for the safety of its users, the company’s actions tell a different story.
TikTok has increased its targeted search term blocks since the last time Media Matters assessed its pro-eating disorder content, in 2021, blocking the ability to search for certain relevant words. But that hasn’t stopped pro-eating disorder content from spreading; it’s still being boosted by TikTok’s “For You” page (FYP) algorithm and delivered to users’ feeds. It seems that TikTok has once again applied ineffective moderation practices, instead of proactively monitoring and removing harmful content.
Starvation challenges using children’s characters, like Hello Kitty, are circulating on TikTok
Media Matters has uncovered a series of starvation challenges circulating on TikTok where beloved Sanrio characters are being co-opted to promote anorexia. Sanrio is a Japanese entertainment company that creates fictional characters for children and is best known for its popular character Hello Kitty. These diets are named after and feature Sanrio characters instructing children to eat dangerously restrictive diets.
For example, Sanrio character Cinnamoroll’s likeness is used to encourage users to starve themselves. The “Cinnamoroll Diet” is a 10-day challenge that starts with a water fast and is then followed by varying dangerous calorie restrictions, ranging from 200 to 400 daily calories. Cinnamorrol is pictured in the corner of the graphics winking next to text that reads “YOU GOT THIS!”
There are numerous examples of users posting that they’re attempting these risky diets or promoting them to others. In one instance, a user uploaded a single TikTok video featuring seven different diet challenges with the caption “d13ts you might be looking for.” The video alone received over 17,400 views.
These starvation challenges aesthetically appeal to children, and the problem is unfortunately much larger than just Sanrio diets.
The first result under the search “ed acc” (eating disorder account) is an extremely restrictive diet challenge called the “Draculaura Diet.” Draculaura is a character featured in the Monster High fashion doll franchise.
Users are also utilizing a restrictive calorie tracker that, at first glance, looks innocent – it’s a pastel calendar decorated with animal images and bunny emojis. A closer examination reveals that the emojis represent how much a user has eaten in a day. One user posted their calorie tracker to TikTok, reporting to have eaten only between 100 and 299 calories multiple days.
Pro-anorexia communities on TikTok are co-opting popular aesthetics to promote starvation
The viral coquette aesthetic popular among young women and girls has created a subcommunity of users promoting disordered eating, namely anorexia. Nylon Magazine claimed that the coquette fashion trend was “on the rise,” defining it as embodying “all things idyllic and feminine, from lace blouses paired with pink mini skirts to chunky heels and knitted stockings.”
The coquette pro-anorexia community extends these notions of romance and femininity to restrictive eating. One user posted their “dinner and dessert” consisting of cucumbers, tomatoes, and berries in small heart dishes with the hashtags “#mealspo,” “#aestheticallypleasing,” and “#coquette.” (The #coquette hashtag itself is wildly popular on the platform, with over seven billion views).
“Remember why ur doing this,” read one TikTok that pictured a model with a pronounced collarbone wearing pearls and a gown. Hashtags on the video include “#dietcokeforlife” and “#starving.” TikTok even autofilled the search bar above the video to read “Rice Cake”; this is particularly significant because rice cakes are a common food choice of people suffering from anorexia.
Users in pro-eating disorder communities will often list their age, start weight (sw), current weight (cw), goal weight (gw), and ultimate goal weight (ugw) in their bio or in videos. For example, one user with “coquette” in their username claimed to be 13 years old and said they had an ultimate goal weight of 39 kilograms (about 86 pounds).
Another subcommunity is the K-pop pro-eating disorder community that uses K-pop “idols” as inspiration for extreme weight loss. It’s no secret that K-pop stars are pressured by their industry to stay thin, and this standard has created a strong pro-eating disorder community among fans.
This community isn’t unique to TikTok. In 2022, BuzzFeed reported on K-pop “edtwt” (eating disorder Twitter) and noted that some members of the community “felt validated by how open K-pop stars are about their desire to be skinny and the restrictive habits they use to achieve their weight goals.”
On TikTok, pro-eating disorder K-pop fans will often overlay text describing restrictive eating habits and weight loss on a video of a thin idol.
The hashtag #kpopweightloss has over 3 million views and #kpopwl (K-pop weight loss) has over 24.8 million views. Top results from both hashtags include pro-eating disorder content.
TikTok must prioritize protecting its young users
There is no excuse for a multibillion-dollar company to not be able to identify and moderate pro-eating disorder content and spaces, particularly when that content is explicitly trying to engage children.
According to an analysis of websites promoting disordered eating published in 2010 by the American Journal of Public Health, “the high prevalence of interaction opportunities in the pro-eating disorder community has the potential to be extremely harmful if viewers are learning dangerous behaviors from one another, particularly if they are similar in age and gender.” Even more worrying, it suggests that “discussing techniques and perceived benefits may also have contagious effects on those not yet committed to the behaviors.”
There is no denying the danger of TikTok allowing pro-eating disorder content to remain on the platform. Because of how hyper-tailored TikTok’s algorithm is to the user, it is troubling to know that those who could be vulnerable to disordered eating content don’t even have to seek it out as they are likely to have it delivered to their own feed.